WHAT would you suggest we do if you knew Australian agriculture might be on the verge of another welfare crisis? Except this time it’s our workers in trouble, backpackers in particular.
And like the recent live export crises, it’s a couple of ‘rogue players’ who hold the potential to bring our whole industry into disrepute.
In the past few months I’ve been travelling around Queensland, working on various farms and getting to learn more about our agricultural industry. While I’ve had nothing but fantastic experiences with my temporary bosses, I’ve also heard some first-hand accounts that call to mind colonial America before the abolition of slavery.
I’m scratching my head here, as we’re wondering how to address this dire skills shortage when the government threw us a bone and opened up the Working Holiday visa extension. This means young travellers who are here on a 12-month working visa can work 88 days in regional Australia to get an additional 12 months “down under”. We need to be taking advantage of their youth, energy and forced commitment and invite them to stay with good conditions and pay. Not just taking advantage of them, literally, as you’ll read here.
Most visitors just want to do the minimum three months and move on, so continually training them would be a frustration, and I’m sure there are a few job-seeking visa hunters that don’t quite cut the mustard on farm. But to not pay them, leave them out in a paddock to walk home, or hit them? These are completely unacceptable scenarios.
When I was 20 I romanticised about working cattle up north. I landed a job as a jackeroo in western Queensland and drove directly to the station from our farm in Victoria, where I was greeted by a nice enough young manager - but living conditions I wouldn’t have put a dog in. Dust a centimetre thick on the floor, smashed light fittings, broken glass windows and the door off its hinges. This and not even minimum wage... I lasted just one night and shot through the next morning. My 'protection' was a ute full of fuel, a healthy disrespect for people who don’t look after their workers – and somewhere to return to.
This was far more protection than a young German lad named Fabian Klinger could claim. He would probably have envied my Queensland quarters after what he experienced working for a southern grape grower.
Fabian and a friend paid a Melbourne backpacker job agency $99 each to “choose” a job and selected picking grapes, advertised at a return of $80-$120 per day and $150 per week for a share house.
They were shocked when dropped off at their accommodation. There was filth everywhere, Fabian said - broken doors, urine on bathroom floors, dirty mattresses, no sheets, pillows or blanket. The kitchen was half destroyed.
“My friend was in tears, she needed the money and the work hours for her visa extension,” Fabian said. “The next day we worked hard, picking as many buckets as some of the experienced Australian workers, 60 buckets in seven hours, at 70 cents per bucket for us.” They earned $42 for seven hours work - $6 per hour. Australia’s national minimum wage is $16 an hour.
Fabian left the next day after confronting the farmer. He paid $99 for the job, $50 for the accommodation, $90 for train tickets back to the city - and earned $42.
Meanwhile, Englishman Michael Jinks meanwhile spent less than a fortnight with his mates on a cattle station in Queensland.
When they arrived on farm they were greeted with a stream of insults and profanities that would make a sailor blush, and left in no doubt that “there is a class system here in Australia you pommie ******s, and backpackers are the lowest of the low”, according to the farm boss.
Michael told me he and his mates were hit with a cattle stick when they did something wrong, sworn at continually and when they made a wrong move out mustering, were rammed off their motorbikes - twice.
After the bike incident, the group quit but were forced to wait three days - while being charged $80 each per night for accommodation - until the farmer took them to town. When he did, he “changed his mind” and dropped them on the highway, more than 100km out, while he kept on driving to town. They were never paid for their work.
Now I’m no investigator, and you might think these were one-offs, or extreme cases, but backpackers I’ve spoken to just in the past three weeks have all had horror stories to tell about working on Aussie farms. None of these were “I knew a guy” or “a friend of a friend” stories, but personal accounts. Go ask some yourself, you’ll be gobsmacked.
What kind of message does this send to the potential workers we’re crying out for? It’s always the bad news that gets the attention, and we need to confront this behaviour when we hear about it, not just shrug and accept it. We need to speak up and make sure the positive experiences – the overwhelming majority – are what the backpackers talk about when they get home.
As you’re aware, there is no union in Australian agriculture - and I’m not suggesting there should be one - but these backpackers have nobody to report to, no system to rely on. They have no protection. They need our help – we can spread the word about the good bosses, the great farms to work on, and we can insist on a set of standards.
This is yet another case of a rotten few spoiling it for the lot as I’ve also met backpackers and farmers that are very happy with each other. They may not be paid much, but are respected and the experience is mutually beneficial.
One guy I’m working with now up in Queensland came for his 88 days eight months ago. Liam loves the farm, the life, the job and the country. He’s been looked after well and he’ll apply for permanent residency soon. I bet there’s a few more of them sitting in that growing figure of more than 33,000 backpackers who worked on Aussie farms last year.
But stories like Michael’s and Fabian’s can’t be swept under the carpet - this potential injection of labour could be fantastic for an industry crying out for more hands, but horror stories don’t just damage our reputation, they could potentially undermine our agricultural productivity if willing workers are scared off by such dire treatment.
We need to address this ‘rogue’ behaviour – and meanwhile promote the overwhelmingly positive experiences most iterant workers have.
So as I asked at the start, what would you do? Telling positive stories doesn’t fix or choke out the negative experiences. Should we create a register of the good employers, where they can be rated by workers? Do we need an online guide or database for job hunters? Or do we need to shoot higher and initiate some government or legislative changes to put us back on the map as a positive, friendly and fair country in the minds of those who come here to experience the “Lucky Country”?