The underbelly of fruit picking: Backpackers are being paid just $111 for seven days work

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Backpackers who were forced to work seven days a week for just $111 in oppressive conditions have opened up about the seedy underbelly of farm work in Australia. 

The federal Government requires young travellers who want to extend their Working Holiday Visa for an extra year to spend 88 days working in regional areas.

They are frequently exploited by farmers and contractors looking for cheap labour and made to endure harsh conditions just to qualify for an extra year in Australia.

Many backpackers like American Kiah Fowler lost their hospitality jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic and moved to do their regional work. 

The tourist told the ABC, she looked for work in Bundaberg, in the Wide Bay region, after losing her hospitality job in Airlie Beach due to coronavirus restrictions.     

Ms Fowler said she saw the ‘underbelly’ of the industry as she tried to find enough work to pay for food and rent.  

The Fair Work Ombudsman has identified the horticulture sector in Queensland’s Wide Bay region as ‘high risk’ for underpaying staff and breaching workplace laws. 

American backpacker, Kiah Fowler, looked for work in Bundaberg, in the Wide Bay region, after losing her hospitality job in Airlie Beach due to coronavirus restrictions

American backpacker, Kiah Fowler, looked for work in Bundaberg, in the Wide Bay region, after losing her hospitality job in Airlie Beach due to coronavirus restrictions

Workers report being paid $19 an hour when the minimum wage for a casual in Australia is $19.84 plus at least 25 per cent loading (stock image)

 Workers report being paid $19 an hour when the minimum wage for a casual in Australia is $19.84 plus at least 25 per cent loading (stock image)

Ms Fowler described how she saw two sides of the industry whilst working as a backpacker.  

‘I’ve met some really lovely farmers who pay the legal wage and do their best to give good working conditions … and then you have this flipside which is the underbelly of the industry,’ she said.  

Ms Fowler contacted a labour hire company offering share accommodation and work planting strawberries but had to leave as she was earning less than her rent.  

She was paid just $19 an hour when the minimum wage for a casual in Australia is $19.84 plus at least 25 per cent loading.  

‘I was very frustrated when I found out that they were intentionally underpaying people,’ she said.   

Backpackers received pay slips that stated they had been paid 9.5 per cent superannuation which was not true

Backpackers received pay slips that stated they had been paid 9.5 per cent superannuation which was not true

Netherlands backpacker, Merlee Quuak, 24, had a similar experience when she arrived in Bundaberg. 

‘I worked seven days a week … the most I made in one week was $111,’ she said.

With only three months left on her visa, Ms Quaak said she picked tomatoes and any other jobs she could find – but the pay did not cover her hostel rent. 

‘I didn’t have any time to complain or wait for a good job, I just needed to get my days done so I had to accept whatever I was getting.’

She found hourly work in a packing shed but uncovered another dirty practice with pay slips saying she receiving 9.5 per cent superannuation that was never paid. 

Farmers often pay seasonal workers per row of fruit, per basket or per hour.  Ms Quaak’s payslips did not specify and listed her job as ‘covering’.  

‘Covering is working in the field, which I didn’t do,’ she said. 

Fair Work Australia has confirmed it is looking into employers in the region which is highly dominated by the horticultural and agricultural sector.  

It comes after a national review in 2018, the Harvest Trail Inquiry, which revealed workers had been underpaid more than $1million dollars. 

At the time, 638 businesses were investigated and half were found to be in breach of labour laws and were underpaying staff and falsifying records.  

In August, Fair Work inspectors revisited businesses that were identified in the report – and also conducted investigations into employers in Wide Bay and Moreton Bay.  

At least 38 businesses were in breach of labour laws. 

The regulator said improving conditions remains a priority and it will continue to work with employers, relevant unions, grower bodies and national supermarkets to improve conditions for workers.   

Fair Work Australia has confirmed it is looking into employers in the region which is highly dominated by the horticultural and agricultural sector (stock image)

Fair Work Australia has confirmed it is looking into employers in the region which is highly dominated by the horticultural and agricultural sector (stock image) 

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