Farmers’ pleas fall foul as backpackers speak out


By Andi-Bianca Haddow

Australian farmers are appealing for help picking this season’s produce, but it’s been met with reluctance, following a social media campaign describing farm conditions as ‘horrific’, ‘unsafe’ and well below minimum wage.

The call by farmers has highlighted the unwillingness of many Australians to participate in farm work, but also the harsh living conditions and in some cases the lack of regulations being implemented.

More than 660,000 backpackers enter Australia annually, with the promise of koalas, pristine beaches and the relaxed Aussie lifestyle.

For some, particularly working holiday visa holders, one hurdle lays in their way: 88-days of forced farm work as a condition of their visas.

Horror stories have emerged under the hashtag #88daysaslave of horrible living conditions, gruelling work and illegal wages.

Gonzalo Perez completed his farm work picking bananas in North Queensland.

He says his wage was piece rate, so he only made an average of $10 an hour, almost $15 below the legal wage.

Mr Perez says while some people can make a living wage, they are the exception.

“For us, no, but there were some people that were able to do it because they’ve been working their lives and for many years.”

The Australian Fair Work Ombudsman says regulations are in place, but they’re unable to oversee the conduct of every farm.

Life on the Farm. Credit: Jamie MacEwan

Jamie MacEwan researched and patiently waited for the perfect farm in an attempt to avoid his own horror story.

“My piece rate job was a relatively fair one… they promised to pay the top 25% of pickers at least $24.70 and we earned on average between 18 and 26 dollars an hour from the piece rate so… it was relatively fair.”

Because of the inconsistency in farm conditions, many backpackers like Gonzalo Ibabe try to gain employment at farms owned by large companies like Coles and Woolworths, which abide by fair work rules.

“I guess there are farms that treat their workers well and there are farms that are focused on making money,” he said.

In addition to the wages and inconsistency in regulations, some backpackers such as Thomas Bertelli speak of dangerous working conditions, saying a lack of training is commonplace at farms.

“There is no training. You are spoken to for about 10 minutes before handed a pair of gloves. My friend lost his arm in a farming accident, another was told to just ice a broken wrist.”

Mr Bertelli’s friend Liam lost his arm within the first few months of his stay in Australia, hoping to complete his farm work early to enjoy the rest of his working holiday.

He has spent the last year and a half in rehabilitation, nearly losing his life, followed by preparation for a court case against the farm’s insurers.

Liam is currently working with Fair Work Australia to implement tougher restrictions, hoping to prevent an incident occurring like this to other backpackers.

In the meantime, The Australian Fair Work Ombudsman has been granted an additional $50 million to investigate criminal activity in the industry.

Hear Andi-Bianca Haddow’s audio package here: