Article Written by Emma Reynolds at News.com.au – Read the original Article and video Here.
BACKPACKERS have revealed what really goes on at Australian farms that offer seasonal work in return for second-year visas.
What’s supposed to be an opportunity for young people to extend their stay while contributing to the agricultural industry is turning into a nightmare for many vulnerable travellers?
Overseas workers describe unsanitary conditions, long hours, low pay and unsafe working conditions. In the worst cases, young people living thousands of kilometres from their families have been exploited, sexually harassed and injured.
Jodie Keiana, from Manchester, left her job picking squash in Queensland after a week.
“The farmer would only employ women because he was scared of men and he wouldn’t let you drink water until you finished picking your row, which sometimes took an hour in the 30-degree heat,” the 25-year-old told news.com.au. “He was a horrible old pervert. He would sit in his ute and shout at us if we stood up because our backs hurt.”
Since backpackers have to complete 88 days of farm work within one season to get their visa, many become so desperate for a job they will put up with anything.
“I was in a room with 12 girls who only had three months to finish their farm work, so they were sticking out the squash farm,” said Jodie. “They got through it together and just tried to be positive but it was such hard work. The hostel also allowed an old Australian drunk man on to top bunk above mine who wet himself and it went all over my bed and on all my stuff. The fact they let an old drunk man in a 12-bedroom female dorm is beyond me.
“A lot of backpackers will settle for the slave labour type work, I was not one of them.”
Some unscrupulous employers are taking advantage of the situation to blackmail backpackers into doing whatever they want.
Jodie describes the practice of “woofing”, in which backpackers work for food and accommodation instead of money. “Loads of people I met absolutely loved this because they were living with families and the work was really laid back,” she said. “But it creates this issue where people can sign off your days without you actually doing the work. Sometimes for money, sometimes for sex.”
‘THEY MADE BACKPACKERS PICK UP THEIR DIRTY UNDERWEAR’
Since September 2015, backpackers have had to upload pay slips when they apply for their second-year visa, so they now need to earn a wage. But this can still be manipulated, and Mike Clark, from Brighton on the south coast of England, says working for no pay was just one of many issues when he worked in construction on a farm in northern NSW.
“We worked from 7.30am to 5 pm with half an hour for lunch and then in the bar until midnight,” said the 27-year-old. “They wouldn’t give us any water.
“They hired us out to others farmers for $30 an hour, digging holes and building fences.”
He was shocked by the unsanitary conditions and the use of backpackers for all kinds of jobs, under the auspices of ticking them off for regional agricultural work.
“Unlicensed backpackers were told to cook in dirty clothes and unwashed from a day on-site building, they told us there was no time to wash. They made backpackers pick up their dirty laundry, including underwear.
“There was a cat eating food that is then served to patrons … cockroaches in the microwave and deep fat fryer and behind the fridges. They served out of date food and cut the dog’s hair in the bar.”
He was placed in seriously dangerous situations, with the farm owner dragging him into a dispute with a neighbour. “There were five big attack dogs on chains guarding the property and we were there to help him intimidate the owner. We stood there while they traded insults and [the other man] held one of the dogs on a chain threatening to let it go and attack us.”
Mike was even more concerned about younger, more vulnerable backpackers he met.
“I witnessed a meal thrown at a young girl because it was not to expectations,” he said. “One of the Argentinian girls, she’d be in tears every day.
“There were sexual remarks and unwanted advances by the owner and pub patrons. Men watched one of the girls undress through a window.
“On two separate occasions, a backpacker stepped on a rusty nail. One, they refused to take to the hospital. The other they did take, only after it got severely infected but still made her work the next day.”
Mike said he regularly saw backpackers blackmailed into extra work or forced to put up with unfair treatment to get their papers signed. The owner removed a week of work from his papers when he left because of alleged inadequate performance.
“They’d make the girls clean the house and cook. If they didn’t like it they made them start again from scratch. They were literally just using them as slaves.
“They had asbestos lying around and wanted the girls to chuck it in the bin.
“There were a lot of things that were illegal or just not very nice. A lot of people are being exploited.”
‘MY LOWEST POINT IN AUSTRALIA’
Joy Lakin, from Derby, said the hardest thing about looking for farm work was “finding somewhere legitimate.”
The 22-year-old told news.com.au that she and her boyfriend Dan were guaranteed work three times only to travel long distances and be told there wasn’t any.
“There were working hostels you could pay to stay in, but work wasn’t guaranteed and you could easily end up spending more money than you make and find it difficult to get out.
“We’d have to wait around in small towns which were far away from anywhere else and wait for the next Greyhound bus — once we had to wait for 12 hours and being in a bus station at night with the occasional drunk walking past without any cameras or security guards didn’t make you feel particularly safe.”
On another occasion, the couple went to a Queensland zucchini farm under the impression they would be working 40 hours a week, but were given eight. There was no health and safety training and they were earning next to nothing, a far cry from their hopes of funding the rest of their travels with their wages, which government and travel websites had indicated they could.
“We didn’t have enough money to live on,” said Joy. “We spent more money on all the equipment they make you buy before coming. We were then told they’d be letting people go as there wasn’t enough work but they ‘hoped’ there might be more in a month’s time.
“This was probably my lowest point in Australia.
“We expected the lack of signal and the awful living conditions, as I think everyone who opts for farm work does.
“This needs to be stopped. Wanting a second-year visa should not strip you of basic rights in the workplace.
“Luckily, we had friends in Airlie Beach who could find us jobs and we had to borrow money from home to go back again otherwise we’d have been stuck there waiting and hoping for more work that we didn’t even know was coming. If we couldn’t have been able to borrow money from home, who knows what might have happened.”
‘MY BODY WAS PURPLE’
Giuliana, a 26-year-old lawyer from Brazil, also struggled to find farm work in Bundaberg.
“The guy said there was a list waiting for work, it was like 100 people and probably I’d get work in a month,” said Giuliana, who was eligible for the agricultural work scheme because she is also an Italian citizen. “I couldn’t stay there for a month.
“It was so dirty with cockroaches, flies, it was very disgusting.
“I just stayed there for 24 hours. I’d already paid for a week. It took one or two weeks to pay me back and they only did it because I called.”
She found another job on a basil farm, but the work was brutal. “I started at 6am outside. It was really hard, they didn’t give me gloves. I’ve never seen my hands so bad.
“Then I worked inside a freezer. It was really, really cold. My body was purple. They said to bring a jumper but it wasn’t enough.
“It was the worst time in my life.”
Giuliana was told her hostel was the best in town, but the bathrooms were filthy, and she once found a drunk man sleeping in her bed.
She would still have stuck it out, but after three days, she was let go for being too slow. At the next hostel, there were no vacancies and she could see it was as bad as the others. At this point, she gave up, returning to Brisbane to work and eventually obtaining a partner visa.
“I was really disappointed because I searched a lot before I tried to get some work,” she said. “I thought it wouldn’t be too bad because Australia is a good country.”
Farm work recently came under the spotlight after backpacker Mia Ayliffe-Chung’s murder at a hostel in Home Hill, Queensland.
In the 2015-16 financial year, 76 per cent of litigations started by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) related to alleged exploitation of overseas workers. Backpackers on working holiday visas accounted for the highest level of pay disputes raised with the agency, most of them casual workers in NSW or Queensland.
‘MANIPULATION AND MISTREATMENT’
There are serious concerns over the “labour hire” industry, through which third party companies typically find backpackers employment on farms. The growth in outsourced, flexible and temporary work has been a defining change in Australia’s labour force over the past 30 years and is seen as vital to industries such as agriculture.
But a report into labour hire in Queensland published in June highlighted “exploitation and mistreatment of workers, the undercutting of employment conditions, and a range of other illegal or questionable practices.”
It said some firms saw labour hire as a way of cost-cutting by minimising responsibilities towards their workforce, and that such employees often faced low rates of pay, fewer opportunities for training and higher rates of occupational injury than others.
The inquiry received evidence of the “manipulation and mistreatment” of vulnerable, particularly overseas workers, including:
• sexual harassment including requiring sexual favours to obtain work
• requiring workers to reside in overcrowded, substandard accommodation at a high price
• employers holding workers’ passports, effectively trapping them (which also happened to Mike)
• a lack of provision of safety equipment and appropriate training
• failure to provide pay slips and pay tax, allowing workers to work outside the tax system
• paying lower than a minimum wage, not paying workers, holding payment for spurious reasons, e.g. damage to accommodation
In Gatton, in the Lockyer Valley of South East Queensland, one worker was paid $35 for six hours work, approximately $5.80 an hour. They also faced “immense safety issues due to the competitive nature of the work” with employees paid by how much they picked often trampling each other in the morning as they rushed for crates.
Another testimony described how a girl was raped by her contractor but did not go to the police because the contractor said they would not sign a friend off for her second visa if she did.
The inquiry found it was often difficult for complaints to police or the FWO to be properly investigated due to the transient nature of workers and lack of evidence.
Many workers were afraid to complain about safety issues or take sick leave for fear of losing their jobs, and while they often contributed tourism dollars to farming communities, rogue operators in the industry could have a detrimental impact on reputation and tourism in regional areas.
Rachel MacKenzie of Queensland horticulture body Growcom told the report: “We are acutely aware of the unfortunate reputation that our industry is getting.”
The Anti Discrimination Commission Queensland (ADCQ) reported that some residents also raised concerns that it was extremely difficult or impossible for locals to obtain
temporary work, perhaps because permanent residents had a better awareness of their employment rights, and would not tolerate the working conditions.
But the ADCQ told news.com.au it had “not seen much action” since the June labour hire report was published. Peter Russo, chair of the committee that produced the report, did not respond to news.com.au’s request for comment by the deadline.
The Anti-Discrimination Board of NSWtold news.com.au it did not often hear from seasonal farm workers because people were afraid of repercussions or an impediment to their visa.
“The laws are there to protect people on sex discrimination and racial discrimination,” said a spokeswoman. “We do try to go out to businesses about rights and responsibilities, and people can call our totally confidential inquiry lines and talk through options.”
Australia is one of the few countries in the world with no regulation or licensing arrangements for labour hire companies, in the face of growing pressure from the International Labour Organisation.
Several commenters said better FWO resourcing would lead to better enforcement of the rules, with the ombudsman often failing to inspect the most notorious farms or advertising when it would hold inspections, allowing rogue operators to evade detection.
South Australia and Victoria are carrying out their own reviews into labour hire work, while the FWO is finalising a review of the wages and conditions of workers on 417 working holiday visas.
It is also conducting the “Harvest Trail” inquiry into the horticulture and viticulture sectors, launched in 2013 in response to “ongoing requests for assistance from employees in the sector, persistent underpayments and confusion among growers and labour-hire contractors about their obligations.”
A spokesman told news.com.au the FWO had a strong focus on protecting the rights of overseas workers, including backpackers, and was conscious of the difficulties presented by youth, language and cultural barriers.
“It is important we are proactive about ensuring they receive their full lawful entitlements,” said the spokesman in a statement. “We are constantly looking at new innovative ways to educate overseas workers about their workplace rights, particularly minimum pay rates.
“The Fair Work Ombudsman is keen to ensure that overseas workers in Australia are treated with dignity and respect and accorded the same rights as local workers.
“We seek to guard against employer practices that deliberately take advantage of language difficulties, lack of knowledge of the law, unfamiliarity with government agencies and dependency created by the significant power imbalance when an overseas worker is reliant on the employer signing paperwork.
“We work to encourage those who are being exploited to come forward by raising awareness of minimum entitlements and taking compliance action where appropriate.
“The Fair Work Ombudsman is also focused on ensuring the Agency does more to ensure culturally and linguistically diverse business operators understand and comply with Australian workplace laws.
“The Fair Work Ombudsman understands that there are cultural challenges and vastly different laws in other parts of the world, but wants to increase awareness that it is incumbent on all businesses operating in Australia to understand and apply Australian laws.”
National Farmers’ Federation President Brent Finla said in a statement supplied to news.com.au that these stories were not typical of what happens on Australian farms.
“The reputational damage these stories cause is significant, and thousands of decent and hardworking farmers pay the price when the unscrupulous actions of a few let us down,” he said.
“Australia has some of the strongest workplace laws in the world and we have strong support networks for those who need them. The key is to know how to tap into them to get help when it is needed — an area where government can also play a greater role.
“We want everyone who comes and works on an Australian farm to have the opportunity of a great experience. It’s that experience that travels home with them, that is shared with their friends, and creates new connections in the years to come. We don’t support profit-derived exploitation, and we never will.”
Employers and employees, including international students, seeking advice or assistance can visit www.fairwork.gov.au or call the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94.
If you have a farm work story to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org.