‘Making money off our backs’: Backpackers exploited on Australian farms

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By LOIS MASKIELL

The first tourist attraction French backpacker Jerome Haize set sight on when he arrived in Sydney was the iconic Bondi Beach.

The 30-year-old traveller from Saint-Cyprien, a small city in the south of France, was immediately struck by Australia’s unique coastline.

“I fell in love with the landscape,” he said.

Jerome bought a van, travelled for two months and then decided to complete three months of farm work, which would allow him to extend his Australian visa and travel with his brother. But after one month picking blueberries in Coffs Harbour, he began to doubt whether extending his visa was a dream worth achieving.

Jerome is one of around 200,000 foreigners who had their working holiday visa granted last financial year, according to the latest data from Department of Home Affairs. The visa program allows travellers to extend their stay a second year if they complete 88 days of specified work in agriculture, fishing or forestry.

The government has been expanding the program to help fill labour shortages on farms. In July, the Morrison Government boosted caps, increased the amount of participating countries to 44 and added the option of a third year of stay. Backpackers on their second-year visa can now extend their stay another year if they work six months in a specified industry.

In October, the government further expanded the program when it announced an extra 1000 places for Polish backpackers.

“We know there are some jobs in regional Australia that aren’t being filled by Australian workers, and we are giving regional businesses the immigration settings to help them fill those roles,” Multicultural Affairs Minister David Coleman said.

Chronic labour shortages in agriculture are so severe that more than 60% of farmers have left crops unpicked during peak harvesting periods, found a 2019 report by the University of Adelaide. Despite gaps in the workforce, Jerome initially had trouble finding work – he visited more than 10 farms asking for a job.

“It never worked out,” he said. Until, at last, he found employment through a contractor.

“He offered us a job, he told us in which farm we would work the next day, but it was really poorly paid. The contractor was a bit of a scam because he was making money off our backs,” he said.

Jerome earned an average of $110 per week picking blueberries on different farms. His employer emailed him a contract which outlined his pay and piece rate – the amount of fruit he could pick – agreement, but neither of them signed it.

“I was either paid by the kilo $2.90 to $3 the kilo, or I was paid by the bucket, $6 the bucket or $5 the bucket,” he said.

Piece rates are allowed under the Horticulture Award. While the award clearly states they should give a competent worker 15% more than the average hourly rate, they are often applied incorrectly.

“Even though I live in my van, I don’t manage to save any money or even have money for daily expenses,” he said. And the weeks Jerome spent waiting to receive his pay cheque worsened the situation.

Backpacker Melvin Courant picked berries 10 hours a day when he worked on a berry farm in Caboolture, Queensland in September.  PHOTO: Facebook

Jerome’s experience is not uncommon. 18-year-old backpacker Melvin Courant began work on a berry farm in Caboolture, Queensland in September. Melvin said he picked berries 10 hours a day, without a lunch break, seven days a week and earned an average of $4 per hour.

“Over the phone, we were told a price between $3 to $5 dollars the bucket. When we arrived, we realised in fact we were not paid between $3 to $5 dollars, but $1.50 the bucket,” Melvin said.

Finnish backpacker Saara Vuorisalo, 25, was employed by a citrus farm near Mildura in Victoria. Saara and her boyfriend made $80 for each bin they filled and after splitting the money between themselves, they earned around $13 an hour.

“It took us together, as beginners, around three hours at first to fill one bin,” she said.

Workers employed through a contractor prepare for work on a blueberry farm in Northern New South Wales. PHOTO: Jerome Haize

A recent Fair Work Ombudsman investigation into more than 600 businesses found underpayment in the agriculture sector is widespread, with more than half of businesses being non-compliant with Australian workplace laws.

To address shady business practices, the government established the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce which released its recommendations in October.
The taskforce found corrupt contractors are a major source of non-compliance in the sector and proposed
to remedy the situation with a national labour hire licensing scheme, criminal charges for severe underpayment and more funding and authority for the Fair Work Ombudsman.

The current federal budget includes funds to set up a national labour hire licensing scheme, similar to what exists in Victoria and Queensland. Under such a scheme, contractors must hold a licence with the relevant authority to legally operate, and farmers must also ensure contractors they engage with are licensed.

Labour lawyer and PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, Sayomi Ariyawansa said a national scheme is a positive step towards broader supply chain regulation.

“That minimal requirement is still more than what we have already,” Ms Ariyawansa said.

A spokesperson from the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources said the government has committed to establishing “a new light touch National Labour Hire Registration Scheme”. However, they could not confirm a timeline for when the scheme may come into effect.

The last straw for Jerome came when he had not been paid for two and a half weeks and he decided to confront his employer.

“I had to look him in the eye and say ‘if you don’t pay me, it’s not going to work’. I had to threaten him to pay me,” Jerome said.

Jerome and Saara have since left their low-paying farm jobs for greener pastures. Jerome drove 19 hours north to Ayr in Queensland where he found work on a tomato farm.

“In a 10-hour day I make $160,” Jerome said.

Saara is now picking almonds in South Australia and earns, on a good day, around $150.

18-year-old Melvin is still shaken up by his experience picking berries in Caboolture. When Melvin broke his three-month contract and quit after four weeks, his employer threatened him.

“She told us that if we didn’t come back to the farm, she would call immigration to send us back to our country,” Melvin said.

Backpackers on their second-year visa will begin lodging their third-year visa applications from January, but that won’t include Jerome, Saara and Melvin who have all decided against staying longer in Australia.