THE stories of backpackers being exploited, abused and worked to the bone on Aussie farms simply to score a second year in the country are endless.
It’s almost a rite of passage for foreigners to walk away from their 88 days of farm work with horrific tales ranging from sexual harassment or abuse to working long hours in scorching conditions for a measly paycheck.
In some cases, backpackers have even died while working on Aussie farms from things such as heat stroke and faulty machinery.
In November last year, a Belgian backpacker died from heat stroke while working on a Townsville watermelon farm.
Olivier Max Caramin, who was 27, had only been working on the farm three days when he died.
But an extensive report prepared by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) could change the notoriety of the industry.
The Harvest Trail Inquiry was a three-year investigation into our multi-billion dollar industry. A report of the inquiry’s findings will be released later this year.
Speaking at a recent horticulture gathering in Brisbane, an assistant director for FWO’s compliance and enforcement branch, said that backpackers working in the industry weren’t that different to slaves.
„In some cases the FWO encountered situations where a person is virtually bonded like a slave to a particular (labour hire) provider, on the basis they have been told they won’t have their visa extension signed unless they see out the season with them,” assistant director Jennifer Crook said.
„We saw backpackers being lured to regional centres by dodgy labour hire operators, treating them poorly, bullying and sexually harassing them and ripping them off to the tune of hundreds — and sometimes thousands — of dollars per person.”
Since launching in August 2013, people working for the Harvest Trail campaign have travelled all across Australia visiting farms that employ backpackers, from Victorian strawberry growers to Queenslanders farming tomatoes and West Australians making wine.
Australia has one of the worst regulated labour hire industries in the world and in recent years, the safety of foreign workers employed on our farms has come under the spotlight after hundreds of foreigners made allegations of verbal and physical abuse, exploitation, sexual assault, underpayment or no payment and dangerous conditions.
But exploited backpackers aren’t just going to the FWO — they’re also desperately sharing their stories on Facebook in an attempt to warn others not to fall for specific employers.
Facebook groups advertising backpacker jobs are littered with cautionary tales.
As recently as yesterday, backpacker Myriam Antonutti shared how working at a dog breeding farm in Moree, NSW had descended into chaos.
„I stayed only one month, because we felt very uncomfortable with our host. She was constantly screaming at her dogs and her husband. Her dogs were in poor conditions because there wasn’t enough/proper food for the dogs, even for those who are pregnant. Most of them dogs were always starving,” Ms Antonutti wrote.
Ms Antonutti also claimed she wasn’t paid the promised $200 a week and was made to work 10 to 12 hours a day instead of the advertised three to six.
She also shared her work schedule.
In October last year, FWO released its 417 Visa-holder Inquiry Report into workplace conditions and wages in October, making a series of recommendations around enhancing the regulatory framework, information, education, compliance and support, highlighting cases of worker exploitation in regional Australia.
The FWO’s Harvest Trail Inquiry has concluded and the findings will be released later this year. Enforcement action has been initiated against a number of horticulture employers as a result of the inquiry, including against labour-hire company HTA Farmings Pty Ltd for alleged serious contraventions of record-keeping laws relating to 265 employees.
In the 2015-16 financial year, 76 per cent of litigations started by the FWO related to alleged exploitation of overseas workers. Backpackers on working holiday visas accounted for the highest level of pay disputes raised with the agency, most of them casual workers in NSW or Queensland.
A report released by the University of New South Wales and University of Technology Sydney in November last year also found a third of backpackers and international students are paid half the legal minimum wage.
Its authors said the results show what many already suspected — that the problem of exploitation of workers from overseas was „endemic and severe”.
„We’ve all heard stories of backpackers and international students being exploited, but we’ve never really known how far it goes,” UTS senior law lecturer Laurie Berg said.
„This survey shows us that we have a really large silent underclass of invisible temporary workers who are being paid well below the minimum wage.”
Employers and employees, including international students, seeking advice or assistance can visit www.fairwork.gov.au or call the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94.
The FWO also has an Anonymous Report function so community members can highlight potential workplace issues.