The Socialist recently spoke to Christiaan, a backpacker from the Netherlands who came to Australia on a working holiday visa.
He came for an adventure but found that working on Australian farms was a nightmare. Young holiday makers are regularly underpaid and forced to work in unsafe conditions. This is an issue that the Australian trade union movement needs to take up.
The Socialist: You came to Australia on a working holiday, what sort of work have you done since you arrived here?
Christiaan: I arrived in Brisbane and worked as a waiter. But, in order to get a visa extension, I had to do farm work.
Like many other backpackers, you can apply for a second-year visa if you do three months of farm work in a regional area. I went to Mildura, in Victoria and ended up doing several jobs from grape picking and collecting almonds to working on solar farms.
The Socialist: What is the pay like working on farms?
Christiaan: There are two forms of payment, hourly and pay by ‘piece rate’. In both cases farmers take advantage. With the hourly rate farmers try to push you to work as hard as possible in the given hours, for example by speeding up conveyor belts.
Pay by ‘piece rate’ means that the farmers pay you per piece that you pick. But for many crops it’s impossible to pick at a high rate. Even the most competent workers can’t achieve a rate near the minimum wage.
Some farmers let more workers show up than is required, which means you have to compete against each other and none of us end up making sufficient money.
Piece rate work is also not suited for certain crops. I worked with heavy machinery in order to collect almonds. But nearly every day these machines broke down, holding us up for hours. The waiting time was all unpaid.
The Socialist: What about the conditions? Is the work safe?
Christiaan: I experienced lots of unsafe working situations. On a big almond farm, the backpackers worked for 12 to 14 hours each day. To get there we had to drive one and a half hours and the same to drive back. All up sometimes it was a 17-hour day! This meant many of us were sleep deprived.
Nevertheless, we still had to get up the next day and operate heavy machines. It resulted in a couple of accidents.
On another almond farm, in April this year a 24-year old Estonian backpacker died because he was run over by a tractor. This was at Carwarp, near Mildura.
At Carwarp the workers were in remote areas under the harsh sun and only picked up for lunch. They didn’t have any means of communication. If anything happened to them they would have been stranded.
The hazard of severe heat is also an issue. A Belgian backpacker died in November 2017. The 27-year-old was picking watermelons near Townsville in Queensland. He died because of exhaustion caused by working in extreme heat.
I know other backpackers who have had to work with chemicals and pesticides that have made them sick.
The Socialist: Why do you think backpackers are so vulnerable and exploited in this way?
Christiaan: I think there are a few reasons. Most have little money and are desperate for work. Many are not fluent in English and are unaware of their rights.
Employers take advantage of them because of their insecurity and temporary visa. Many want to extend their visa, so they are forced to work on farms. You feel that if you complain you will not be allowed to stay.
The Socialist: It seems that changes to the law are necessary, what types of reforms do you propose?
Christiaan: I think regular safety checks of farms are needed, with the results published. Employers should be exposed if they are exploiting people. There should also be a regime where only accredited farms are allowed to take on temporary visa holders.
I also think piece rate work should be abolished. Everyone should be paid the minimum wage, and for every hour they work.
The Socialist: Change usually comes about by building pressure on governments and employers, what sort of movement do you think is required to stop this exploitation?
Christiaan: I would like to see backpackers united in a movement. By coming together, we can begin to cut across the vulnerability that exists. Perhaps an online platform could help to bring temporary workers together.
The Socialist: Uniting backpackers would be a great start but the movement would be more powerful if it had links with local workers. Have you made any approaches to existing trade unions?
Christiaan: It would definitely help if backpackers had links to local workers. I think the unions could help by creating awareness about how backpackers are exploited. We really need a campaign by the unions to organise farm workers.
The Socialist: We agree. If employers can get away with paying backpackers less that only drives down everyone’s wages. In that sense there is a real incentive for local workers and backpackers to fight together for decent pay and conditions.
We hope that much more can be done on this front and we wish you well with your campaign to highlight the plight of backpackers working on Australia’s farms.