Kiwifruit packhouse: My work experience
Before working in the Kiwifruit Packhouse, we used to work in a kiwifruit orchard as an orchard worker. However, the downside to the job is that it is very much weather-dependent. When it rained, we’re not allowed to work because the kiwifruit disease, PSA will spread quicker and kill the vine during rainy days, which will then cause millions of losses. Because of the unstable job conditions and our need for more income, we decided to switch to working in a packhouse. Ironically, the packhouse job was rather unstable too. If there’s no picking, then there’s no packing. Laugh out loud.
A Brief Background Of The Kiwifruit
I don’t know about you, but I definitely wasn’t aware that there are two types of kiwifruit: green and gold. All my life, I’ve only recalled buying and eating green ones.
From my experience of working in the packhouse, green kiwifruits are way more hairier than the gold. Also, they’re much cheaper too. This is the variety that we grew up eating.
On the other hand, gold kiwifruits are more expensive, with way finer hair and taste sweeter. Not only that, they come in humongous size too! For those reasons, most kiwifruit growers in New Zealand aim to grow gold rather than green.
Surprisingly, after talking to so many people, including my parents, green kiwifruit is the most preferred variety than its gold counterpart. Their argument was that gold kiwis are too sweet for their liking and they don’t taste like kiwi at all. Moreover, they’re more on the sweeter side and are good because they have thinner skin and are fleshier.
Eastpack & Zespri
For us, we’re working for a packhouse called Eastpack, New Zealand’s largest kiwifruit post-harvest operation. Although their headquarters is located in Te Puke, they have a branch here in Opotiki. Eastpack packs kiwifruits for Zespri—the world’s largest marketer of kiwifruit. Surely, you must have seen the Zespri logo on most of the kiwifruits you can find back home.
Getting to work
Lucky for us, the packhouse is located at a 20-minute walk away from our accommodation. On days when it was sunny, we’d walk. Of course, there were many instances when we were picked up by our kind friends on our way there too.
Once, it was raining in the morning and the three of us were walking to work. Together, two cars stopped beside the road just to pick us up to work. Later, we were told that it was extremely easy to hitchhike in New Zealand. Though this one came to us without us sticking up our thumbs.
Types of jobs in a kiwifruit packhouse
When we applied for the seasonal position in Eastpack, we ticked the box “packer”. But, honestly, we’re up for everything as long as we have a job. At first, our host suggested that we apply for box-making. Box-makers usually start before everyone else as they need to get the boxes ready. That means starting the job earlier than everyone else.
By then we were already desperate as we’ve been out of work for almost 2 whole weeks. However, I later learned that box-making job has been partially replaced by machineries, therefore we were stuck with packing. Oddly, on my first day of work, the packing team leader came and dragged me away to the grading dept for no apparent reason, so I started my job as a grader instead of a packer.
Generally, grading is the easiest and most tedious job in the kiwifruit packhouse. Most of the grading tables were empty because the computers (spectrim) can now do the grading. Even so, computers can sometime mess up and reject kiwifruits that would classify as exports. In fact, a grader’s job isn’t that much different from our fruit thinning job in the orchard. For 3 or 4 days, I worked as a grader before being sent to B-belt, a huge belt where all the kiwifruits from the graders’ tables gather in one big roller table.
2. Quality Control
My job at B-belt is classified as under quality control dept. Honestly? It sounds like a big shot, but really it’s just the most monotonous job in the whole packhouse. I am required to sample 50 fruits from B-belt every now and then and flip the charts to either green (good), orange (warning), or red (too much rejects). Imagine doing that for 9. Hours. Every. Single. Day.
As for the QC department, the staff will take a box of kiwifruit, open up the packed boxes and sample 100 fruits every few minutes. Of course, they are equipped with all kinds of fancy LED lights and equipment on their tables to do their quality checking. The results reflect deeply on the graders’ performance.
Basically, a packer packs kiwifruit into a box. Sounds easy right? It’s actually one hell of a job. During my 3 days working as a packer, I honestly wanted to strangle myself for signing up as a packer. First of all, you need to understand that there are many lines available in the packing department. Each person will take a line and be in charged of catching the kiwifruits that will fall from the conveyer belt onto the boxes. Packing is a battle of time-management and working with extreme speed, mainly for people who love to move non-stop in a stressful environment. There are two main boxes:
IT boxes and ML boxes:
IT boxes have fixed kiwifruit size trays in them. When the kiwis drop from the conveyor belt, we were supposed to arrange them all horizontally while battling the ever increasing speed of the conveyor belt. Packing kiwifruits is always a race with time. When the speed of the conveyor belt increases, there won’t be much time available to properly arrange the kiwifruit nicely on the trays and tuck the sheet of plastic in. It will be an OCD’s nightmare.
ML boxes are my favorite because I don’t have to arrange the damn kiwis nicely. I just have to shake the whole box in all possible directions to get the kiwifruits to fit into the right spaces and shut the lids. Although there weren’t much cursing involved in packing ML boxes, the speed can be absurdly fast, sometimes even without breaks between boxes!
4. Tray Prep
A person in charge of tray prep will work closely with the packers. Essentially, they need to ensure that a constant flow of boxes are supplied ceaselessly to the packers through the box’s conveyer belt. Tray prep team is required to place a layer of plastic in the boxes and the IT trays (they call it inserts). Also, the way the plastic is placed in the box really determines the packing speed of the packer. Some trey prep workers placed the plastic in the most hideous and terrible manner that just calls for more cursing and hollering coming from the packers on the other side.
When the kiwifruit sizes change dramatically, the line manager will announce a change of boxes, tray prep team will need to quickly react and change the box sizes according to what was announced. Of course, they work under pressure as well, though not as stressful as the packers.
A stacker basically stack the packed boxes together in one huge block. They are usually men who are bulky and tough because it’s a physically-demanding job to do. A stackers needs to be fast and accurate.
A stacker basically stack the packed boxes together in one huge block. They are usually men who are bulky and tough because it’s a physically-demanding job to do. As a stacker, you need to be fast and accurate.
7. Forklift Driver
A forklift driver drives the forklift and lift blocks and blocks of kiwifruits trays stacked together like a jenga out of the packhouse into storage or for exports. They are usually skilled men who are trained for the task. Not only that, they need to get a forklift license to drive the forklift. Always watch out for the forklifts as they can drive ridiculously fast sometimes.
Workplace injury sounds like the last thing that could happen in the packing department right? At least that was what I thought. Within 3 days of the start of the season, more and more blood contamination and plasters were found in packed boxes—it became a major issue in the packhouse. Soon, packers were starting to bleed from the sharp edges of the boxes. Louis was one of them. Seriously, it got to a point in which plasters that were given out had to be registered and numbers were written on them to track the packer in case they find anymore plasters in the packed kiwifruit boxes. Needless to say, blood contamination issue was taken seriously in the packhouse.
What really happens when you're doing a repetitive job?
When I was working at B-belt, I started out highly motivated and ridiculously energetic. But, when I hit the after-lunch mark, I started shutting down. Although my hands were still doing what they should do, my mind had started drifting off to many places. Once I got used to the job, I was just spacing out most of the time.
The packhouse almost always played from the same spotify playlist. With the music and the machinery harmoniously blended together. Striking up a conversation with my B-belt buddy, a local Māori, was taxing but hilarious. Also, I picked up a few Māori vocabulary. I mean, why not use this opportunity to learn the Māori language and I’m well on my way to becoming a polyglot!
What really happens after 4 to 5 days? You get used to it. Used to boredom and repetition. Right now? I’m a pro at doing a repetitive job. A really good one too.
Working in a kiwifruit packhouse means you will look HIDEOUS.
We’re expected to wear a hairnet and an apron because we’re working with food.
But, one good thing about the packhouse is that they have the decency to remove any possible mirrors in the packhouse so you would not see how ridiculous you look like wearing a “shower cap” and an apron.
In all seriousness, the packhouse takes hygiene issues seriously. Everyday, we are required to wash our hands before we go in and when we come out from the packhouse.
Facilities In The Kiwifruit Packhouse
Once in a while, the kiwifruit packhouse treats us lunch, like a 6-inches subway sandwich and cookies, burrito sandwich, bars of chocolates, and donuts. Not only that, they have free coffee machine in the cafeteria. Everything from baking oven to microwave, toaster, cooking stove, pastry warmer… you name it, they have it.
The downside Of Working In A Kiwifruit Packhouse
Boring, tedious, drilling, and taxing aside.
The kiwi packhouse job can be weather-dependent too. Sometimes, but not all the time. There was once when it rained 4-5 days consecutively and we were exactly 7 days out of work! Well, 6 days frankly. We’re also working under a roster day off system whereby if we’ve worked for 13 days straight, a day off is necessary so we won’t be overworked.
Compared to my friend whom I met on the plane, she started out in the apple harvesting season when it was full-on, so she didn’t quite have as many day-offs, which I’d prefer as we’d get to save more money for our upcoming travels. Towards mid-April and end of April, work did get more stable. The longest we’ve worked was a 9-day streak, really good money.
The good side Of Working In A Kiwifruit Packhouse
Meeting people from all around the world. Nuff’ said.
Besides that, there were also a lot of quizzes, competitions and random events (like gumboots competition to raise awareness for mental health) that were carried out during lunch breaks or smokos to spice things up everyday. Unbelievably, we won the Superhero Quiz during the week The End Game was released. Although, to be honest, I did not contribute much as I was not very proficient in recognizing superhero logos.
On Lola’s birthday, we also organised a shared lunch (potluck) so we could taste different food prepared by friends of other countries and cultures. There were nice food that represented Mexico, Spain, Malaysia, New Zealand, and India!
Most importantly, this job has allowed me to learn new things about the Māori culture and people. I’ve met so many amazing leaders and workers who are cheerful and generally really kind and friendly. For the memorable and once-in-a-lifetime experience, thank you, Eastpack.