All workers, regardless of where they’re from, deserve to earn a living wage and work in safe conditions. But the Migrant Workers’ Centre and Unions NSW’S latest survey of more than 1300 backpackers reveals the majority of farm managers are engaging in rampant wage theft and outright abuse. 78% of workers surveyed had been underpaid, and some piece-rate workers averaged just $9 a day.
We’re calling on the Fair Work Commission to amend the Horticulture Award to guarantee workers are paid at least minimum wage – and we’re demanding the Morrison Government commit to a range of urgent measures to address this catastrophic situation.
Scroll down to read the worker stories
I’m 32, I came to Australia from Taiwan on a working holiday visa. I wanted to work and travel around the different landscape of this country, meeting people from different cultures. After I got here, I discovered all us backpackers had to work on a farm in order to get a second year visa. We were all in the same boat. I’ve picked strawberries, oranges, mandarins, grapes and lemons in South Australia and Queensland.
Some farms were OK but some were really bad. I can tolerate a lot, we Asians are very strong! But it was still very hard. Two years ago I was living in really poor living conditions, it was accommodation that the farmer provided. Eight people in one room. Sometimes the farmer would separate males and females but not always.
Photo of Kate. Source: image supplied
The other thing was the piece rate system. We often ended up working less than the minimum wage. Sometimes I was couch surfing to save money. Sometimes I went dumpster diving at night. The first time I did that, my friend took me and I was so shocked at myself to be doing it. To me, it was the kind of thing that homeless people did.
The reality is that working on piece rates - it’s no money at all. I was working on a mandarin and lemon farm, it was a cash-in-hand job, and they didn’t even provide proper equipment for picking. I’ve earned just $24 per day. Such hard work.
I also worked on a strawberry farm where the farmer advertised for ‘Asian workers only’. I think that’s so discriminatory – just because we Asians are willing to break our backs picking the strawberries, doing work that maybe Europeans wouldn’t do.
I really hope the farmers can pay us in hourly rates instead of piece rates because in reality there’s no money. We want a wage that we can actually live on. Farmers are reluctant because they want people working harder and harder. It’s really difficult for backpackers and farm workers to find decent wages.
Photo of Kate. Source: image supplied
I feel like during COVID, the Morrison government was very irresponsible. We were left in this country, we couldn’t go home. We couldn’t move anywhere for work because of the travel restrictions and there were no subsidies to help us. I survived by just not going anywhere. Us backpackers, we pay lots of tax as well – but when COVID hit, there was no support for us. Then when Scott Morrison said: Backpackers, if you don’t have any savings, you should go home, we were really upset and insulted by that.
I’m currently working in a grape farm in South Australia, but I’ve been stood down, waiting for the pruning season to start. There’s no money coming in at the moment. I think I will stay here a bit longer because we’ve just had a big COVID outbreak in Taiwan, so it’s a bit unsafe to travel back now.
Photo of Koji. Source: image supplied
I did a few different types of farm work as a Japanese backpacker, so I could get my second-year visa for Australia. One was at a horse riding farm in Gold Coast. We didn’t get paid, but we got our meals and accommodation provided. Most of workers over there ware Japanese.
Another one was orange picking in Berri. Our wages depended on how many bins I filled up. If my memory serves me correct, it was around A$30 per 1m3 bin but the problem was that season, the oranges were not good, very small like mandarins. So we were like – Oh my God, this will take so long to fill up! My friend Masa and I were like – No, we can’t earn money with this job. It takes forever to earn just $30. And it was really hard work too, the sunshine was so strong, about 40 degrees.
We were staying in a backpacker’s hostel near the farm, everyone staying there were also working on farms around the area. It was in the middle of nowhere. One day we were called by the owner of the hostel, they said we were no longer welcome to stay there because we had made a contract directly with the farm recruiter, before we started staying at the hostel. They said we couldn’t come back, they had records of our passport and said – you can never come back here again. They were so bitter to us. I guess the hostel was getting some kind of agent fee for organising backpacker work, and they didn’t like that they couldn’t make that money from us, so they kicked us out. We had to camp in tents and leave.
I didn’t have any information about the pay, like how much I should be getting paid. Masa and I were just following the system. I went to a recruiter and we were introduced to a farm contractor and we got the work from him. I just thought this was normal, this is how it is, to earn so little money. We didn’t have experience about the previous farming job, for me it was the first time. The main thing I believe is that backpackers should know what the regular rate of pay and work condition should be. In some farms it’s like slave work and so many people don’t know their rights.
I came here from France, and started working on farms in Mildura in Victoria. I was in a working hostel picking figs, so my very first job was on piece rates. To earn the minimum wage we had to do ten boxes per hour, but if we packed less than that, we’d earn less. But the pay was capped at 10 boxes which was around the minimum wage, so even though I was fast, I’d do 14-15 per hour, I was paid the same as if I’d packed 10. So it wasn’t really piece rates! So it could have been good money but because the limit was the minimum wage I couldn’t make more money. I quit because of that, I did it for a couple of weeks.
Then we did berries. That was really bad – it was hard to do 10 boxes per hour, it just wasn’t worth it. Then I did vine pruning for two weeks, that was alright, that was an hourly rate but it was hard, 40+ degrees - but at least we had that security of hourly wages.
Then I got a job driving tractors at night to harvest grapes and that was hourly and the pay was good… but it was a flat rate, for nights and weekends, and we were working 12-13 hours per night. I actually went back there this year and we managed to get them to pay us extra for the weekend rates, we worked with an Australian guy who started telling them what they should pay us and we showed them the Fair Work website. At first, they said OK we’ll pay you Sunday rates but not Saturday, but eventually they couldn’t disagree with Fair Work. I really hope they don’t try it again on the next people, who might not know their rights.
Source: stock image
I haven’t been able to work during COVID. I left Mildura with my ex-boyfriend, his boss was racist. He was Argentinian. Another Argentinian guy got fired but the boss just got rid of all three of them, all from the same country. So we left and went to Adelaide and then COVID struck. We got stuck there for two months doing nothing. So at first we didn’t want to pick oranges because the pay was piece rate, plus most farms were asking us to buy our own picking bags or gloves, or on some farms they said we could rent the ladder or the bags or secateurs, they didn’t provide it! The bag was around $10 a day, the secateurs was $5 or 10. So we refused for a long time but eventually we really needed to work for our visa.
We found a place eventually where we were paid $25 a bin but the guy was providing the ladders and bags and everything. Between two of us we would do maybe 6-9 bins per day. It depended on the trees, the weather. You can’t start before the oranges are warm, so we might start at 8 but not be able to start untijl 10. We were making $350 a week each per week. I survived by being really good at saving. We were also living with an old lady who had horses and in exchange for taking care of her horses, she hosted us, we lived in a caravan on her property. So that was good, no rent, but we had to take care of the horses in the morning and at night. That’s how we did it. It was exhausting, I lost a lot of weight! And then we found another job, we found an almond tree planting job, that was hourly but it was 10 hours a day but then with the horses in the morning at night, it was so much.
With COVID, so many of us backpackers went back home. I hear about farmers complaining because there’s no one to pick their produce. I think it’s a good idea to have us working on farms but if they want us to keep doing it, they should treat us better, we are human beings. At some point, farmers won’t have anyone, we have backpackers groups online, we talk, we say – don’t go to that farm, they’ll treat you like a slave. So if the farmers want to keep having people working for them, they need to treat them better. And we pay more taxes than Australian residents, but we don’t get superannuation at the end of it. I understand the country needs to make money from us but it’s unfair if we don’t get a decent salary and we don’t get superannuation. Especially in times of crisis like now, they should realise how important we are. Most Australians won’t do the jobs that we do, my bosses have told me that, they really need us backpackers because we are essential. I see how desperate the farmers are. My last job I was picking avocadoes and I got a bonus for staying until the end of the season but I don’t think that without COVID it would have happened. There was only 12 of us instead of the usual 25.
In France you get help [social security] from the government if you work for a year, you get benefits. Something like that would be good for migrant workers here. During COVID, it would have been nice – I know in NZ they gave backpackers a bit of money, maybe around $500 a fortnight – and it really would have helped. During the two months we were in Adelaide, we were lucky, we got a house free because an Australian guy helped us out, but without that we’d be home now.
I came to Australia from Taiwan with my partner. We wanted to explore, do lots of travelling. We fell in love with the backpacker lifestyle. I love Australia.
In Taiwan I heard a lot of information about work and life for backpackers so when I came here, I knew about the poor working conditions. I did experience that, but I worked through the tough time. I think the government should fix this problem because lots of new arrivals come here and have no idea the working conditions and the pay under piece rates is so poor.
I had two jobs, piece rates jobs. One was strawberry picking in Tasmania and the other one was broccoli packing in Gippsland in Victoria.
With the strawberries I get paid maybe $300-$500 a week. In mid-season, I worked normally eight hours a day, 5-6 days but my picking speed is very slow. To save money we ate a lot of noodles… and strawberries! We had seven of us in the one house to reduce the rent. We made strawberry jam with toast every day!
With the broccoli job I normally was paid similar, around $400 per week. The worst week I got maybe just $100. It was a tough time. The worst time I only had maybe $300 in my account. I felt like I would almost die. Accommodation was $100 per week. That’s a third of what I was earning. My partner she picked faster than me so she give me some money.
You should never do the piece rate job, that’s what I learnt. I would never do that again. It was really challenging, it really pushed your limits. I’m lucky I had a partner, she saved me.
Photo of Green. Source: image supplied
When I worked in Tasmania they divided workers to do different things, and for the heavy work they got the people from Tonga and Solomon Islands who had been picking crops for many years. They were very experienced. Because they picked so fast, the farmers reduced the piece rate for all of us because they could see the Islanders were earning too much and they didn’t want to pay. After I left, the farmers did increase the rates a bit because lots of people complained.
The broccoli picking I worked first, that was under a Vietnamese contractor, packing broccoli. He kept saying - you have to pack quicker, but I worked hard. My partner is quite small, the farm boss was constantly yelling and shouting at my partner, saying to pack quicker. One day we couldn’t stand it anymore, we had a few words with her, and she improved after that.
The farmers in broccoli farm were ok but the contractor was the one who was underpaying us. We did realise that but we had no choice because we had no money, we just needed to collect the money until we could afford to go to the next destination. After that, I never chose piece rate jobs again.
For lots of new arrivals, we’ve got no idea. I did sign a piece rates agreement but I had no idea what the contract said.