Exploiting backpackers under the sun

14 Mins read

Backpackers working their way around Australia’s farms have called for better protection after revealing the abuse they have been subjected to while undertaking a compulsory three months of rural work in exchange for a second year on their visas.

In December 2018, I spoke to more than 30 backpackers about their farm work experience and found that the majority felt obligated to tolerate unsafe working conditions; in some severe cases, young people living thousands of miles away from home had experienced sexual harassment, racism and financial exploitation.

I travelled around Australia back in 2015, and since then I have researched and investigated into the extent of which backpackers are being exploited, while being forced to work in Australia’s agricultural industry to extend their Working Holiday Visa by one more year.

[pullquote align=”right”]“He took me to his home which was a shipping container. He showed me in, offered me a beer and sexually assaulted me there.”[/pullquote]Campaigners say it is shocking how Australia’s agricultural industry has boomed since backpackers started working on their farms 12 years ago, but the authorities continue to risk causing serious harm to vulnerable travellers by having an unchanging, unregulated system.

In an attempt to tackle the issue of exploitation, footage of abuse has been shared across social media platforms, letters have been sent to MPs and the government, petitions have been signed, police reports have flashed red flags and the deaths of several backpackers have reached international headlines.

Nevertheless, overseas workers question how much more abuse will they have to suffer before their voices are truly heard?

Photo Credit: Brittany O'Neill

Backpackers walking to start picking in a tomato field in Queensland [Brittany O’Neill]

Sexual harassment has been prevalent in recent scandals plagued by the 88-day visa requirement, with women forming the majority of victims who have spoken out about the unwanted sexual acts they have been subjected to during their attempts to undertake the mandatory farm work required by the Australian government.

According to Dr. Sky Saunders, 93% of women experience sexual harassment while working in Australia’s agricultural industry. In her 2015 report, she found that this behaviour is part of an “ingrained culture” in rural areas where masculinity dominates the workplace.

One of the many victims is Claire, a 23-year-old British backpacker who was road-tripping around the scenic countryside of Western Australia with her fiancé in 2015, when her journey took a turn for the worst.

After stumbling across a Google-ad hiring travellers to work on a secluded strawberry farm, they drove to the location with the idea that earning some cash and gaining a cultural experience could never be a bad idea.

But on their first day, while Claire’s fiancé was put straight to work picking on the strawberry fields, she was not given a single task. Eventually an older man who seemed to be running the business instructed her to follow him so he could show her where the taps were to “water the crops”. He drove her through the dusty dirt tracks until she was no longer familiar with her location.

“He took me to his home which was a shipping container. He showed me in, offered me a beer and sexually assaulted me there,” Claire recalls numbly.

Bowen tomato farm

Working in the 37 degree heat all day began to take its toll for one worker [Brittany O’Neill]

Feeling immediately awkward and intimidated, she sat on a step fearing what was going to happen next. After rejecting his invitation to have sex, she recalls him leaning forward to grope her breasts instead.

“I was shaking at this point and he was laughing. I wanted to run but there was nothing else but bush. I was thinking, ‘Is this man actually going to take me back or what else he is going to do?’” she said. Despite being a tall woman of six foot (1.82m), it horrified her that a small man whom she estimated to be aged around 80 fooled her into going back to his home to subject her to unwanted sexual acts.

After her persistence, he drove her back and she insisted that she and her fiancé leave immediately. Claire felt it was too difficult to tell him about the hostile experience she had just encountered at the time: “I left it long enough until we were far enough away before I told him. I guess it’s like radiation and the further you are away from the centre, the less it feels real.”

[pullquote align=”right”]“It was 36 degrees, no showers, no running water on the farm, there were hardly any oranges on the trees and we got paid by the bucket”[/pullquote]Claire regrets not reporting the farmer to the police at the time of the incident, but admits that the only thing that was on her mind was to move on and get as far away as possible.

Another British backpacker, Milly, was just 18 when she witnessed sexual harassment at two of the three farms she worked on. Milly was having “the trip of a lifetime” until she headed out to a remote, rural area to undertake agricultural work, which is when her views on Australia began to change.

On one farm, Milly recalls a tanned Australian farmer in his mid-40s who forced the girls to leave their bedroom key under the mat outside their room. She claimed he outwardly abused his power to exploit young women while running an orange farm: “When it was ‘flirt time’ he turned. His eyes would pop out of his head and it felt like he owned us,” she told me.

Terrified to tell the farmer of her intentions to leave whilst also being far from public transport, Milly ran until she stumbled across a local woman who helped her and later apologised for how the people of her country had treated her.

Tomato farm, Bowen. Photo by Brittany O'Neill

Tomato farm, Bowen [Brittany O’Neill]

At the second farm, she discovered her bed was a mattress on the floor with no pillows or sheets, but that was a minor issue compared the abuse she was about to witness: “They were grabbing this Asian girl by the wrist, it looked like the girl in her twenties was being held there against her will.”

Milly’s rent was A$180 (£101.64) per week for “appalling” living arrangements and she earned no more than A$40 (£22.59) in one week; which is why she got out of there as quickly as possible.

Some extreme cases of sexual exploitation have managed to catch the attention of the press. The most recent was a 54-year-old Australian farmer Gene Charles Bistow, who, on March 4, 2019, was found guilty for abducting and raping a 24-year-old European backpacker in his pig shed. He was later sentenced to 18 years in prison.

According to Australia’s Channel 9 News, a female backpacker from Belgium made her way to his farm in Southern Australia after he responded to her Gumtree job application for farm work back in February 2017.

They reported that he kidnapped her, shackled her hands and feet to the ground of his pig shed before abusing her, later being charged with multiple accounts of rape. “I thought I would never see [my family] again and that I would die,” the victim said during the trial at the District Court of Southern Australia.

[pullquote align=”right”]“You felt like you were in a headlock system; to farmers we are just dollar signs.”[/pullquote]

Evidence shows that exploitation of backpackers in Australia is not limited to the areas in the south, with reports of unsafe working conditions coming in from rural areas across all six Australian states. Many backpackers attempting to get a Second Working Visa also jeopardise their health, with many complaining of illegal working hours under the sweltering sun, with few water breaks.

Jennie, a 23-year-old British backpacker stuck out farm work for three months at two farms in Southern Australia. She described the behaviour tolerated from Australian farmers as “the worst in all ways you could possibly imagine.”

Rent and bills at the hostel totalled A$200 (£112.94) per week where she shared two showers (one which broke for two months while she was there), in a hostel that accommodated up to 100 people.

Strawberry farm packing shed

Strawberry farm packing shed [Becky Carver]

At least once a day, Jennie would receive derogatory remarks from her boss such as, “you girls are so fucking stupid” or naming her “good girl” whilst also working illegal hours.

Obtaining a second year visa was the only reason she continued; she said it felt wrong to be working an illegal contract and she knew it was unsafe to be crawling under machines where her head could have been scalped, but she couldn’t say anything in case they fired her.

“You felt like you were in a headlock system; to farmers we are just dollar signs.” She eventually had her visa granted but emphasised how wrong it was that “people are putting their lives on the line just to stay in Australia”. She recalls a taxi driver later apologising for how their country had mistreated her. It was a relief that she met likeminded backpackers and said that meeting nicer people got her through the hardest of times.

Frankie, a 23-year-old backpacker from North London expected farm work to be a challenging experience, far from the breezy lifestyle he had in Melbourne. However, he was shocked to discover the living conditions were far worse than he had imagined.

“It was 36 degrees, no showers, no running water on the farm, there were hardly any oranges on the trees and we got paid by the bucket load. Unless you were absolutely desperate; you were screwed,” he said, recalling his experience during the Australian summer of 2017. No protective gear was provided by the farming company and Frankie was covered in scratches after just one day there.

Frankie's arm covered in scratches after picking oranges without protective gear. Photo by Frankie Cavill

Frankie’s arm covered in scratches after picking oranges without protective gear [Frankie]

Saying goodbye to travel friends to embark on a nine-hour journey to a remote part of Northern Queensland was nerve-racking enough, but experiencing a rapid deterioration of his wellbeing soon became unbearable for Frankie. “You are literally signing your life away, they do not care about what happens to you. I cannot believe that the Australian authorities are letting this happen under their nose.”

Eventually he fled the farm situated one hour from Townsville feeling guilt-ridden for his fellow backpackers who he believed were probably trapped there against their will.

Some backpackers are fortunate enough to make a speedy escape when they experience wrongdoing but many do not have this option due to financial pressures or time constraints. Last year, Brazilian backpacker Antonio* spent more than two months working at various fruit and nut farms that he believed were run by the Mafia due to the illegal activity he witnessed.

On one occasion, he almost lost his finger splitting wood, because the farm never provided safety equipment. Despite being unable to move his finger, he was forced to return to work six days later in order to pay his weekly rent of A$170 (£96). There were cameras everywhere in his hostel that accommodated more than 139 travellers in shared dorms.

“If backpackers were caught on camera with weed, they were made to hand it in and then the owners would smoke it in front of us,” he said. Antonio suspected odd behaviour of farmers and believed they were using their business to “clean their money”. He did not want to go into detail in case it jeopardised his visa status.

Foreign backpackers were not allowed to eat in the same building as Australian workers – instead if they were lucky enough to have a break, they were forced to eat in the car. Antonio took a 22-minute refreshment break (five minutes more than instructed) having worked six hours straight, and was fired on the same day.

Photo by Antonio

Backpacker goes back to work with a thumb injury [Facebook]

He recollects his boss screaming at him for taking such a “long” break: “You need us. We don’t need you. We have 10 more backpackers wanting your job tomorrow!”

Antonio said the expectations of backpackers working on the farms were inhumane and he compared the “dodgy” living standards and behaviour of farmers to the corruption in his homeland back in South America. However, he admits that he is grateful for the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and is glad he was able to make friends for life.

Some backpackers are not so lucky, and the deaths of several overseas workers while undertaking farm work have created international headlines in recent years. One of the tragic stories was of Belgian backpacker Olivier “Max” Caramin who died of suspected sun stroke while picking pumpkins on a farm in Queensland in 2017. According to The Guardian, a farmer apparently shouted at him the day before because he wasn’t working fast enough in the 35-degree heat.

Despite gaining the attention of the mainstream media, it is argued that the Australian government are failing to tackle the issue of exploitation in the agricultural industry.

[pullquote align=”right”]“I don’t have an issue with the French but every now and then you get a bad bunch.”[/pullquote]

The majority of people I interviewed felt it was important to add that they noticed people of colour were exploited more than Western backpackers. The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre found that workers on temporary visas had been forced to work in “slave-like” conditions for agriculture labour contractors. They claim that farming companies who supply some of Australia’s biggest retailers are using racism in the workplace.

As well the horrendous living standards, Frankie was appalled by the “backwards” attitude of farmers towards Asian workers: “They spoke to foreigners like garbage, like they were nothing, it was like going back 50 years.He believed that the people in charge recognised those who were most desperate and exploited them through emotionally manipulation.

Tomato farm, Bowen

Indonesian workers asked to have a group photo with European backpackers [Brittany O’Neill]

It is apparent that racism in the workplace is not just an issue of the past in Australia. Tiffany, who was 18 at the time, felt horrified at how racism was normalised by farmers when she worked on a banana farm in Northern Queensland for three days on her gap year in 2015. “They told me I was ‘slow and weak like the Asians’,” she said this was just one of many insults directed at people of colour. “[Farmers] were exploiting the fact that people were desperate, if they won’t do it then someone else will.”

Some backpackers are so desperate to stay in the country, that they are willing to accept farmers paying less that the Australian minimum wage, even when they are struggling to buy food. It is evident that farmers are aware that backpackers have no choice but to accept any given work if they want to meet their visa requirements, particularly the ones that have left it to the latter half of their first year, as time begins to run out.

Since 2007, when backpackers were required to work on Australia’s farms for at least three months if they wanted to stay a second year, the agricultural industry in Australia has boomed. The effect was immediate: production rose by 20% to A$43.3 billion (£24.45 bn) in 2007-08, despite the fall of 6%, A$36.1 billion (£20.4 bn) in the year before.

According to the Australian Government website for agriculture (ABARES), the gross value of farm production was estimated to have reached a record of A$62.8 billion (£35.5 bn) in 2016-17; that is almost double compared to 2006-07 before the visa change for travellers overseas.

As a result of the influx of backpackers working in Australia’s largest farming sectors, the country’s agriculture has been identified as “a powerhouse for driving economic growth in Australia,” by Dr. Ray Johnson, managing director of Agricultural Appointments

It is evident that travellers fill critical jobs during harvesting and picking seasons with around 35,000 backpackers per year working in horticulture (fruit-picking) alone, yet many young people feel that they are, in the worst cases, being stripped of their basic human rights.

Australia is recognised for having strict immigration laws but when it comes to tourists working on their farms, the system is unregulated, and it is alleged that Australian farmers have been taking advantage of the system’s flaws, leading to unreported breaches of fair work laws.

Olivier "Max" Caramin

Backpacker Olivier “Max” Caramin who died while picking pumpkins in 35 degree heat [Facebook]

Perhaps the most disturbing finding was how oblivious farmers and hostel owners appeared towards the harm they were inflicting upon innocent travellers. Dave*, who runs a backpackers hostel situated in a small coastal town in Queensland, has been accused of being “aggressive”, “racist” and “drunk” by some guest reviews left on Hostelz.com. However, while Dave denied these accusations he admitted: “Everyone says something they might regret afterwards.”

One traveller of Indian descent said Dave blackmailed her into cleaning his van to make up for late rent payments, as her ear infection prevented her from working in the tomato packing shed back in 2015. “He stood over me drinking beers and making rude remarks like, ‘Do you know what, if you were a cow I’d buy you’.”

It startled Dave that these comments were repeated back to him during a phone conversation three years later, however, he believes that he was paying her a compliment: “Yeah I remember her and she was a good worker!” he said.

Backpackers also claimed that he made racist announcements such as “no more French” as he thought it was best to turn away all French travellers that wanted to stay at his hostel after receiving complaints made by local farmers. Dave denied being racist. “I don’t have an issue with the French but every now and then you get a bad bunch,” he said.

As a working hostel manager, Dave is responsible for liaising with the farmers who, he said, complain when he sends in backpackers that they claim “aren’t pulling their weight.”

Whether a backpacker is fruit-picking on the field or sorting fruit on a conveyer belt in a packing shed, there is a noticeable segregation between Asian workers and Western workers. “The Asians are the best of the lot because they have a different motivation and need to send money back to their family.”

Dave has been running his backpackers hostel for over 15 years where he has gained experience in working with hundreds of travellers every day, seven days per week. He blames their complaints (or, “bitching”) on being too immature and partying too hard. “They make assholes of themselves, they wince and bitch and complain that the work is too hard; a lot of them aren’t mature enough.”

According to the Australian government website, applicants for a Working Holiday Visa must be no older than 30, except Canadian and Irish citizens who can be aged up to 35. Inevitably, the majority of backpackers undertaking farm work are in their 20s.

Becky Carver

A trailer used to carry buckets of berries and backpackers from one field to the next [Becky Carver]

Backpackers are particularly vulnerable when doing Australia’s required farm work because often they feel it would be too much of a risk to their visa status if they make an official complaint; which is why many choose to remain silent. It is also common for backpackers to find themselves stuck in a position where they are not being given work as promised, but cannot leave the hostel because they have run up rent arrears with the owners.

Overseas workers that experienced less abuse and got paid a reasonable wage considered themselves as “lucky”. Ultimately, most backpackers put themselves through farm work and will do whatever it takes to get their visa papers signed.

Fair work campaigners believe that the issue of exploitation within Australian agriculture has gone on for far too long and have described its current state as “the calm before the storm”.

Australian-born Brendan James McWilliams lives in Sydney and runs an NSW Anti-Wage Theft campaign that aims to protect workers from being subject to exploitation in the workplace. He is “disgusted” at the way the entire agriculture industry is unregulated. “No one ensures that work is legit and safe. Workers should at least have a proper roof over their heads with access to medical facilities should they need them,” he told Artefact.

Becky Carver

Strawberry farm [Becky Carver]

He feels ashamed that his government have failed to provide a safety net for backpackers, especially given that they have a proven track record of having a positive impact on Australian farming industries; an economic sector that had notably struggled to find enough employees in the past.

In order to prevent unsafe working conditions, Brendan feels that the government need to give more power to the FWO [Fair Work Ombudsmen]: “Every venue should be audited twice a year, and automatic financial databases need to be put in place to detect abnormalities.” he said.

The Fair Work Ombudsman recently released their Harvest Trail Inquiry report, which followed an extensive inquiry into the horticulture sector across Australia. It found widespread non-compliance, with FWO inspectors issuing 150 formal cautions to employers and recovering more than A$1 million (£564,680) in unpaid wages for more than 2,500 workers

A spokesperson from FWO told us that all workers in Australia have the same rights, regardless of citizenship or visa status: “We understand that backpackers can be vulnerable, with little understanding of their rights under Australian law and sometimes limited English, and that this can discourage them from coming forward,” he said, adding that: “[The FWO] do not tolerate the exploitation of any migrant workers, including backpackers.”

The FWO also has an Anonymous Report tool, which allows members of the community to report workplace concerns to the FWO in English or one of 16 other languages, without being identified. Their agreement with the Department of Home Affairs allows backpackers to ask for their help without fear of jeopardising their visa approval.

Campaigners urge backpackers that are experiencing any form of bullying or harassment in the workplace to come forward.




*Names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.

Featured image by Brittany O’Neill




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