Growing concern about the welfare of backpackers working on Australian farms has prompted industry representatives to defend their practices, insisting horror stories come from a few ‘bad seeds’.
Rosie Ayliffe, whose 20-year-old daughter Mia Ayliffe-Chung was murdered while completing farm work required to get a one-year extension to her 417 visa, is campaigning for reform of the scheme that she said put young lives at risk
Ms Ayliffe travelled to Australia from the UK earlier this year and has spent the past few months gathering stories from backpackers who have complained of financial, sexual and psychological abuse.
However, several industry representatives from across the country have responded to the claims saying the vast majority of working holiday-makers had positive experiences.
Owner of Mildura International Backpackers in northwest Victoria, John George, said he operated his business ethically.
“I don’t see massive amounts of publicity about the good things, but I know there’s a massive amount of good things that go on,” he said.
“People stay in the area, get work in the area, people complete their 88 days of farm work, everything is fine and they go off happily, but they’re not the type of people who are going to write all over Facebook pages and create terrible word-of-mouth.”
He said calls for more regulation were unwarranted.
“I think the issue with all those things is the policing of the regulations because the framework exists to manage all the issues that people seem to raise in relation to the 88 days of farm work,” Mr George said.
“I think the regulators ability to investigate, police and ensure people adhere to the regulations is plainly insufficient, but it’s insufficient in numerous industries.”
Owner of Picky Packers hostel in the Queensland town of Mundubbera, Mark Postle, also defended his business and its role in finding farm work for tourists.
“Every one of the kids in the hostel has got a job and that’s through the goodness of the farmers and the sheds, they’ve all supported us, they come to us and we’ve got work for every one of them,” he said.
“I know there’s bad stories out there, but there’s good stories out our way.
“You treat them like you would like your own children treated if they were overseas and that’s exactly how we treat them.
“We feel very protective of our backpackers and we look after them.
“There are no bad farmers out here, I know all of them, it’s a good community we’ve got here.”
Bill to increase penalties
Federal Assistant Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Keith Pitt, who is based in the Queensland city of Bundaberg, said a Fair Work Amendment bill was introduced to parliament earlier this year to increase penalties for those found to be exploiting workers.
“We have made substantial changes to the 417 and 462 visa programs over the last four years … the individual is required to produce time and wages records such as payslips to put forward to the government to get the 88 days, we’ve made substantial changes around fair work to continue to tackle these types of issues,” he said.
“Employers around the country, in the absolute majority are doing the right thing, they’re doing a fantastic job … but we do have these bad seeds and I’ve said many times we need to weed them out.”
However, Mr Pitt said further regulations were not needed.
“We don’t need more red tape and more registrations, what needs to happen is we need to enforce the laws that are there not create new ones that bind up our existing employers who are doing the right thing,” he said.
“There will always be those who do the wrong thing and we need to make sure we crack down on them but we also need to make sure we don’t damage the ones out there doing the absolute utmost to comply.”
Farmers urged to employ directly
Jo Moro from the Mareeba Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association in far north Queensland said a third of the farm workers in the Atherton Tablelands were international tourists.
He said there had been no issues with hostels organising work for backpackers in his region, but he said problems could be avoided by farmers employing workers directly.
“The hostels do supply workers to farms in Mareeba, generally what I hear is there haven’t been any significant issues, but it’s not something we encourage,” Mr Moro said.
“There are a number of issues that farmers need to be aware of and they can’t say the workforce has been provided by ‘person X’ they need to take on responsibilities and farmers cannot wash their hands when dealing with hostels.
“We encourage farmers to deal with proper labour hire companies that are legitimate and have a shopfront aspect to them and are not just operating from the back of a car or a hostel.”
“We prefer farmers to deal directly with backpackers as they come into the community and talk to them and explain to them what the work regime is.
Backpackers report positive experiences
German backpacker Judith Geyken is currently into her fourth season of working on a citrus farm near Mildura.
She said she had heard stories from other backpackers who had had bad experiences, but she considered herself lucky.
“When I was travelling I heard a lot of backpackers talking about how bad Mildura is and I said ‘no, I’ve had the best experience ever,’” Ms Geyken said.
“There are groups on Facebook, you can ask people with previous experience … I didn’t research Mildura, I was just lucky.
“I loved it so much here and because I loved it so much when my time was over I thought it would be great to stay and do my studying in this place I really want to be.”
English backpacker Oliver Wilkinson, who is also working on a citrus farm near Mildura, said his experience had been so positive he wanted to stay permanently.
“I think a lot of the bad stories seem to come from hostels that find your work, whereas if you find your own work and you’re living on a farm it seems to be a lot better,” he said.
“It never feels like I’m going to work because the people I work for I get on really well with. I’m never doing repetitive tasks, I never get bored, it rarely even feels like work.
“I can’t even imagine leaving this farm.”