Australia is an amazing country, so it is no surprise many backpackers would love to stay in Australia for another year. To earn a second year visa, a backpacker has to do 88 days of regional work. Back in April I was one of the excited backpackers ready to take on the farmwork-challenge. Little did I know…
Through Gumtree I found a contractor company in Bundaberg named Willing Workers. Willing Workers has deals with farms all over the Bundaberg area. You stay in their hostel for AUD $210 a week, and they arrange work for you. The hostel we stayed in was named Federal Backpackers, and even though the staff were friendly people, the hostel was an old, run down, dirty hellhole. The dorms vary from 2 to 12 bed dorms, all for the same price. Light in the kitchen broken so that early in the morning or at night you have to sit in the dark? No one cares. Toilets disgustingly dirty? Not their problem. I often questioned myself what they did with the AUD $210 I paid a week.
Reversed Robin Hood: stealing from the poor
If you’re on an hourly paid job (which Willing Workers promised in their advertisement, but didn’t provide us with – I’ll get to this later) they take AUD $3 of every hour worked. So instead of earning the AUD $21,61 minimum wage for farm work, you earn AUD $18,61 an hour. Imagine Willing Workers having over 100 backpackers working for them, day in day out, up to 12 hours a day. You do the math.
The Strawberry Farm – not as sweet as it sounds
A day after I arrived in Bundaberg I started working at a strawberry farm. I wasn’t too happy when I found out that I wouldn’t be paid hourly, but on a contract rate. This means the harder you work, the more you earn, which isn’t as reasonable as it sounds. We got paid for every plant we planted: 4 cents for the plant, and another 2 cents if the plants didn’t die. Yup, that’s 6 cents per plant. Jackpot!
It was not much later that we found out that the three Vietnamese workers on the farm did get paid hourly, and earned AUD $21,61 an hour. When we saw them at the pace they were planting at we understood why: paying them by plant would’ve cost the farm, Tinaberries, a lot more, as these workers were so fast that they could’ve easily made AUD $30 – AUD $35 an hour. This was the first sign of the dark things going on at this farm…
After the first day of working I wasn’t too amused, we were promised hourly paid jobs, and strawberry planting is actually very hard. With the pace I was going at I was making about AUD $12 an hour, nowhere near the AUD $18 Willing Workers promised us. I immediately phoned up Bronwyn, one of Willing Workers‘ managers. She told me that there were no hourly paid jobs available at the moment, and that I just had to try so I would get better at it. I decided to keep on going, because after all it was not only the money, but also getting my 88 days done that counted. The days that followed after weren’t too bad. Because we were planting plants which were harder to plant, we got a raise to AUD $6,5 cents per plant. Also, the group of backpackers we were working with was a fun bunch of people, making the days more enjoyable.
Two weeks and thousands of strawberry plants passed. One morning when we were planting as usual, Tina (hence: Tinaberries) came up to us and told us they lowered the price of the plants back to 6 cent a plant, because the new plants we were working with would be easier to plant. This was nowhere near true; these plants were in fact even harder to plant! We objected, and explained to them why we thought this wasn’t fair. Not too happy they agreed to stay on the AUD $6,5 cents.
After the debate about the AUD $0,05 cent the atmosphere changed. Tina and her husband Bruce were all of the sudden a lot less friendly than they used to be. One day, Bruce came up to me and said: “Well, congratulations Evelien! You’re the lucky winner today! You’re not planting well so you can re-do your whole row (250 meters!!)!” Astonished I looked at him. He couldn’t be serious, right? I’ve been working at that farm for almost three weeks, and never did they complain about my planting skills. All the plants I planted before were still alive, and growing steadily. Now all of the sudden I’m doing it all wrong? Seriously? Fine – I checked my row and re-planted a few plants. At the end of the day I heard they were having a go at the other backpackers as well – suddenly we were not doing our jobs right – a cowardly way to get back to us for not agreeing with the lowering of the wages.
After that I just couldn’t be bothered anymore. They want to pay me per plant instead of hourly? Fine. They prefer quality over quantity? No problem. I decided from then on to take the time for every plant. Made sure I put it in deep enough, pull it up a little, put enough soil around it, check, double check, good? Yes. Perfect. “Off you go little plant, grow your delicious strawberries!” At the end of the day I finished one row, instead of the 2,5 rows I normally did. Not much later when I was back at the hostel Bronwyn called me, saying me and my boyfriend had been fired by Tinaberries. Wow. So that’s how the farmers roll.
Promises, promises, promises
I soon had another job, working as a tomato packer in a packing shed, which was fine. My boyfriend and his brother were also promised hourly paid jobs, but instead they were lead on, had to wait for days for a job, and were eventually sent to a sweet potato farm. When they found out they were paid on contract again, and not on the promised hourly basis, they had enough, and quit.
Willing (to exploit as many) Workers (as they can)
I thought my experience with the strawberry farm was bad? Oh, I ain’t seen nothing yet! While working in the tomato shed I met a girl who shared her experiences about working on a sweet potato farm. The farmer had been sexually harassing her; not only making sexual remarks towards her, but also grabbing her hips and touching her, and then laughing it off. She immediately filed a complaint with Willing Workers, where Bronwyn promised her she would never have to go to that farm again, and that they wouldn’t send any other girls there either. Lies. After that, girl after girl was sent to work on that farm, because after all, it makes Willing Workers a lot of money, and that’s all that counts.
Dingo Blue Hostel
Another working hostel in Bundaberg is Dingo Blue. We often had to go there to pick up a van to drive to work (the van itself being nowhere near roadworthy). This hostel consists of a few containers on top of each other, and the living conditions are even worse than in Federal. One day one of the windows in the bathroom was broken, resulting in glass all over the floor. The girls immediately reported this to the hostel manager, but only about a week later someone came to fix the problem. If the authorities would come and check Willing Workers and its living conditions, this hostel would definitely not pass Australian safety standards and would be shut down. There are rumours that the owner of Willing Workers paid off the authorities so they stayed away. I wonder where that money came from…
Conclusion: do NOT go to Bundaberg!
No matter how desperate you are to get your 88 days done, do NOT go to Bundaberg. At first the contractors there seem really friendly and act like they care, but all they really care about is making a lot of money. These contractors and the farmers have one huge thing in common; they don’t give a shit about you. Farm work is extremely psychally challenging, as you’re exposed to extreme weather conditions, often work long hours and often do repetitive work leaving your body aching. Trust me, you don’t want to be treated like dirt on top of that.
More stories about backpackers being exploited are circulating these days, like this story on ABC News. I really hope the Australian Government will investigate these issues and end this farm work exploitation. As any other backpacker I would love to stay in Australia for a second year, but under no circumstances will I ever accept being treated as a modern day slave.