A hazy mist is slowly enveloping the farmland. The last of the sun’s rays are gone, leaving behind a horizon of hues like an overripe avocado. In the depths of Australian winter, in rural New South Wales, the cold is seeping through my clothes into my bones. I stand huddled together with nine other people under the flimsy awning of a shed. All strangers to one another, it’s a situation that requires companionship and empathy; vessels of each running close to empty as we turn on one another. I’m reminded of the Lord of Flies as every person with a working cellphone signal takes turns frantically calling R, the owner of the farm. He seems to have forgotten us, the same people he picks up every morning and drops off in the evening after we’ve worked a back-breaking ten-hour day. The supervisors who oversee our work have also left, leaving us helpless, several kilometres from the nearest town. R still hasn’t answered his phone and we wait for nearly two hours before his navy-blue mini-bus pulls around the corner and up the steep hill to the farm. He had more important errands to run, he says. We feel inconvenient, like a herd of cattle he is obliged to transport.
Being a traveller, especially a backpacker, is a privilege. To flit effortlessly between countries and procure visas just a few days after applying are benefits granted to those with certain passports. I had left Canada nine months before my arrival in Australia and travelled to East Africa. I lived on the coastal island of Zanzibar before buying a one-way ticket to Sydney. Receiving a Working Holiday Visa for one year in Australia is relatively easy, but it’s problematic to extend the visa for another year. There is a stipulation requiring travellers, like myself, to spend at least eighty-eight days working in a rural area. Most end up picking fruit on a farm. Serving time in rural Australia guarantees an extension of the work visa, and knowing this, the farm owners can exploit travellers. After indulging myself in Sydney’s pre-lock out nights and witnessing the vestiges of the city’s nightlife vanish, I left for my stint in the country. This is how I found myself spending my days picking tiny blueberries from thorny shrubs and filling up buckets that I carry on each arm. I massage my arms at the end of my day but the steel rings have etched temporary marks on my skin, a reminder of my toil. My shoes and clothes are caked in dirt, my back sore and bent, legs past the point of feeling like jelly and my eyes unable to stay open.
A joint investigation by the ABC’s 7.30 Report and Fairfax media undertaken in 2016 infiltrated the world of illegal workers and labour hire operators. Though it narrowed in on illegal migrant workers from other countries, it also explored the conditions faced by many others working on farms across Australia: unsanitary and unsafe work conditions, underpayment, long hours, harassment and exploitation, to name a few. Backpackers may have a legal visa to work on these farms, but it doesn’t stop the exploitation of workers.
The joint investigation, and others like it, discovered that fruit companies, the same ones who supply product to supermarkets like Coles and Woolworths, were the ones employing workers in illegal conditions. Illegal labourers on farms were underpaid by about $9 an hour, on average, to pick and package the fresh produce consumers buy in Australia’s supermarkets. Cutri Fruit, a Swan Hill stone fruit grower, was one of several companies that underpaid illegal workers or exploited travellers for work. On a secretly recorded video, a Cutri Fruit senior manager was caught telling Saiful Hasam, an undercover journalist from Malaysia, that the labour hire contractors flout visa rules. Hasam is told by the senior manager of Cutri fruit that he can’t employ him directly as he doesn’t have the necessary paper. “That’s why we use the contractor, because, I don’t know, they dodgy it up,” the senior manager goes on to say.
Despite the fair trade rules in Australia, farmers around the country can capitalise on the situation easily. As a backpacker, I’ve had more issues than most (perhaps because I’m brown and distinctly foreign). Other travellers, mostly Caucasian, laugh about their problems: the low wages and the long workdays. But as the product of immigrant parents, I know I shouldn’t be working for six dollars an hour when the law clearly states differently; I know I’m required to have more than a fiteen-minute break for a ten hour shift; I know that talking to my coworker shouldn’t equal a monetary punishment; nor should asking questions to clarify my boss’ instructions. I know all this because I want to abide by the rules and ensure that I am respected while enduring this drudgery. But the white people at my hostel tell me to, “lighten up, mate”; “it’s all part of the Aussie experience.” They have the colour of their skin to fall back on, it’s something to laugh about; a temporary blemish on their worldwide exploration to “find themselves”. I look at the colour of my colleagues and the townspeople and see myself reflected in none of them. To them, Australia is just a temporary paradise away from their lives. For me, Sydney is where I’ve made a home after never having belonged to one.
I have worked my way around New South Wales, each farm worse than the last. The owners are neglecting to give me work while the tall, muscular, white boys I live with at the hostel are picked. They drink beer with the bosses and regale me with stories of their days while I spend my time contacting farmers, local businesses and job postings on the local hostel board. Each individual I call answers excitedly, the elation wearing off when they hear my name, one they can’t wrap their tongue around. The pauses become more distant and vague before they finally hang up. My patience wears thin.
I make my way to R’s farm with the last of the money in my pocket. He seems to have a diverse mix of workers, mainly women, and this improves my mood temporarily. When I hear of the wage, six dollars an hour, I try and recalibrate my finances. Unlike other places, R does not have room and board on his farm. So, after learning that rent at the hostel is twenty dollars a night, add to that groceries and the safety equipment for the farm, I decide to grin and bear it.
My first day working for R, he picks up seven of us at our hostel. It’s an hour past dawn. If you miss his ride, you can’t work on his farm. He’s late – a usual occurrence as I’ll later learn. Each worker is assigned a row of thorny blueberry shrubs. We’re midway up the hill, giving us a gorgeous view of the surrounding land while wiping away tears that form from the bitterly cold, piercing wind. The sun’s rays are bleak, fighting to get through the stormy clouds. I work my way up a hill and when one of my two buckets is empty, I bring it down the hill to the van, where the supervisors weigh it and, if they’re satisfied, put me down for a bucket, or two. The workers are spaced out enough that I can’t talk to anyone and if I do come face to face with someone on the other side of the shrub, the foremen are there to cut a conversation short before I can even begin. Lunch is a relief: fifteen minutes of hungrily eating and conversing as much as I can with the other labourers, desperate for human contact.
There are no other breaks. The foremen drill their repetitive, monotonous instructions into my skull all day long to pick only the blue berries, not the red ones. Occasionally, they would see a red one in my bucket and publicly chastise me, demanding that I be more careful. They run the place like a plantation, ones that you thought existed in the 1800s, not today, not this year. Of all the farms I’ve worked in, this one seems the most exploitative. R pays in cash; there was no talk of bank account details or contracts. Whether I will actually get paid weighs on my conscience as I make my way back to the hostel.
Sylviannie Pinn, from Toulouse, France, told news.com.au how she was put to work picking grapes at a rate of around one dollar a bucket. She wasn’t allowed a break for an eleven-hour shift and found herself earning seventy-five dollars, reduced to twenty-seven dollars with no apparent reason given. After paying for the scissors used to cut the grapes from the vines and the transport fees, she didn’t have enough for a night at the hostel. She isn’t alone in recounting a horrific experience. Jodie Keiana and Mike Clark, both from England, have given interviews detailing the abusive conditions and harassment they faced in rural Australia on farms. Clark, from Manchester, found himself working the bar after a long day on the farm and was loaned out to other farmers for a cut-rate price.
And when travellers, or migrant workers, have attempted to warn other travellers in the area of exploitative employers, they’ve been threatened. Charlene Pickett, a 28-year-old from the UK, said in an interview that she “put up signs in the local campsite to warn people about them [the employers] but were then threatened with defamation and having our visa revoked.”
In a recent report by the Fair Work Ombudsman, more than a third surveyed said that they were paid less than the minimum wage; fourteen per cent said, to work on a farm, they had to pay employers (or a fixer) a lump sum; and six per cent paid for an employer to “sign off” on their eighty-eight days. Some were also subjected to pay deductions that they didn’t agree to in writing as legally required.
Stephen Clibbon of the University of Sydney’s business school said, “Of those working in low wage, low skill jobs, it would not surprise me if the vast majority have been underpaid at some stage.” He estimated that underpayment of some 1.8 million temporary workers in Australia is widespread. The industry is manipulative and brutal. Officials in power, those with land and wealth, turn a blind eye to the conditions of their workers; their visa statuses and lives back home don’t matter to them. All they care about is their profit margins.
Following the media investigations into the work conditions on these farms and the harassment faced by workers, both Coles and Woolworths quickly attempted to distance themselves from these illegal practices. Woolies said it requires its suppliers to abide by employment and migration laws. They went on to state that they would refer any allegations about a supplier breaching the law to relevant authorities. Costco went one step further and said that it will stop buying Cutri Fruit until an audit of the company’s practices is done. This still doesn’t negate the other dozens, if not hundreds, of produce companies that mirror Cutri Fruit’s practices. Coles said that they had launched their own internal investigation and will refer any allegations or practices to the Fair Work Ombudsman.
National Farmer’s Federation President Brent Finla defended the farmers, though. In a statement for news.com.au, he said, “The reputational damage these stories cause is significant, and thousands of decent and hardworking farmers pay the price when the unscrupulous actions of a few let us down.” He went on to defend Cutri Fruit, stressing that they would never knowingly exploit illegal workers.
Yet, there is hope for future travellers and migrant workers. The University of New South Wales, the University of Technology Sydney and the University of Sydney have joined together to launch a large-scale national study, the first of its kind, into underpayments of temporary visa holders. The government have launched the Harvest Trail Inquiry, a major national investigation into these allegations, headed by the Fair Work Ombudsman as well as the Migrant Worker Taskforce, which will be made up of officials from multiple agencies including the Australian Border Force.
But until the government enforces strict rules and ensures men like R don’t perpetuate what is already a cyclical and systemic issue, there won’t be any widespread change for those looking to stay in Australia.
On R’s farm, I decide to be paid by the bucket, rather than by the hour. Confident in my belief that I can deliver two and a half kilograms within an hour, equalling twelve dollars, it makes more monetary sense than the pittance of an hourly rate. My row is thick with berries, most of them blue or almost there. I hurriedly go through it, spaced out enough from the other worker further along the row, ensuring a good haul for myself. Tediously, I avoid the red ones. Occasionally, a few fall into my bucket.
After the first bucket is close to overflowing with blueberries, I head down the hill to where there are two ladies by the van, counting the buckets. One of them is R’s wife. She takes my bucket and empties it out, picking at several red berries. A dozen more are fished out from the depths that have a red tinge near the bottom. They deem my entire bucket worthless. All the blue ones are kept in the van and the women refuse to add anything to my sum for the day.
On the Friday of my first week, I’m paid in cash. It’s my first and last payment from R and it equals $150 and some change. For thirty hours of work, I’ve been paid less than six dollars an hour. He cites a mysterious, unnamed monetary punishment, plus the day I spent going by the bucket.
Like a mantra, I repeat to myself that they are all a product of the system that indoctrinates them to only see the money. I attempt to put myself in their shoes, but their treatment doesn’t soften, nor does my tone. I’m yelled at, my work is the only one to get picked apart, my buckets scrutinised more than others. R questions whether to sign me off on days where he says my performance and the total weight of the berries delivered were sub-par. The other labourers try and give me advice. But I know that the colour of my skin stands out like a red berry in a blue bucket when I’m on the field.
Dhruva Balram was once a freelance journalist until he (finally) found full-time journalism work he enjoyed. He’s currently the head writer at The Wild City in New Delhi, India after spending years selling shoes, coaching tennis, tending bar and eating instant noodles.