Death in the sun: The dark side of Australia’s backpacking industry
Death of Belgian in Queensland raises questions over exploitation of workers
Olivier “Max” Caramin, a 27-year-old Belgian man, died in Queensland in November after collapsing while picking pumpkins in 35 degree heat. Photograph: Remembering Olivier Max Caramin on Facebook
Martin Hand knew something was wrong as he watched a fellow backpacker stagger down the road in the searing heat of a Queensland summer.
Hand, a British traveller, had been picking pumpkins on a farm near Ayr, a small country town 10km from the coast, along with other young backpackers including a 27-year-old Belgian, Olivier “Max” Caramin.
The day was hot - the temperature had reached 35C - and the field where they were working was in a bowl; very humid with no breeze. Nor was there any shade on the trailer that was used to take the boxes of picked pumpkins to the shed.
“It was really hard to cool down,” Hand says. “We told Max to get into the shade of the trailer, but then I seen Max run past me. His complexion was completely different to when I last saw him, his eyes were crosseyed and he was running like newborn deer, with his arms and legs all wobbling.
“I said what the fuck’s going on? I knew it was serious.”
Caramin got 50 to 80 metres up the road before he collapsed. His breathing was laboured. His colleagues did everything they could think of to cool him down while they waited for the ambulance.
“It was clear,” says Hand, “that Max was in a very bad way.”
Hand recalls that Caramin had already said he could not go on picking, despite earning the ire of the farmer earlier in the day for not working fast enough. The crew had also told the farmer they wanted to stop picking at seven trailers but, according to Hand, the farmer insisted they pick an eighth - their normal quota.
Caramin died in Townsville hospital hours after collapsing on that day last November. The coroner is awaiting a final report from Workplace Health and Safety Queensland before deciding whether the matter should proceed to inquest.
The Belgian had been on the farm for just three days, undertaking farm work required by the Australian government if young foreigners wish to extend their working holiday visa by a year.
Designed to provide seasonal workers for farmers, the 88-day rule requires that backpackers spend their time in regional areas in specific jobs such as fruit picking and packing, trimming vines, working in tree farming, or working in mining or construction.
At the end of 2017, 5,664 Irish backpackers were in Australia on a working holiday visa. In the previous six months, 989 Irish were granted a second-year visa having completed their 88 days of regional work.
While most backpackers say they love visiting Australia and that working on a farm added to their experience, Caramin’s death adds to a growing list of troubles experienced by young backpackers in rural Australia: rapes, sexual harassment, substandard living conditions, breaches of workplace safety laws and financial exploitation.
In rural towns, poor treatment of backpackers and exploitation are an open secret, as the Guardian discovered during a trip along the Murray river with a British student, Katherine Stoner . After her own experiences as an 18-year-old she returned to make a documentary about the 88 days policy.
Most Australians are unaware that cheap and plentiful fruit and vegetables are in part the result of a state-sanctioned arrangement that forces young backpackers into often exploitative conditions to undertake rural work in the harsh Australian climate.
Routine underpayment, crowding backpackers into rundown houses and pubs with an inadequate number of bathrooms and sexual harassment are common. The Australian Workers’ Union, which covers fruit pickers and farm labourers, says the incentives inherent in the scheme make backpackers extremely vulnerable.
The fact that they are on remote farms as fill-in workers means there is little reason for farmers to train them, says the union’s national organiser, Shane Roulstone.
“And, because the backpackers’ top priority is to get their paperwork signed, they are likely to put up with illegal wages and poor conditions,” he says. That pressure increases if the backpacker has left it to the end of their first-year visa to venture into the country.
Stoner and the Guardian travelled to Mildura, a town of 30,000 people on the Murray in western Victoria, just shy of the South Australian border. A green oasis of fruit-growing in the dry Australian outback thanks to the river, it’s a magnet for backpackers trying to complete their 88 days of farm work. It’s also one of the hottest regions in Australia, with maximum temperatures reaching into the 40s.
The former mayor of the city council, now a councillor, Glenn Milne says he’s aware of breaches of workplace safety, wage exploitation and unscrupulous hostel owners who are often doubling as the labour hire contractor.
This dual role as provider of accommodation and work for backpackers is convenient at one level but makes the backpackers very vulnerable, as they are dependent on one person for a roof over their head and a job.
“There are contractors and owners of properties that have a very bad reputation,” Milne says. “Our own council has been involved trying to take every action they possibly can, and we continue to do that.”
The Guardian has tracked one operator, who is named repeatedly on websites, to a small town outside Mildura. He has been operating another hostel in an old hotel that has seen better days. Residents say it is run down but there is plenty of work. Inside we can see several sets of bunk beds to a room.
Milne says part of the problem is that the business of hiring and accommodating backpackers involves multiple jurisdictions and laws.
“You can look at a situation and know it’s wrong. But which law, who enforces it? And the time taken by the system, that’s what really makes it difficult.
“You have to notify an inspection and they just move people out and it’s the right amount of beds and it’s tidy. But you know they are up the road ready to move back in again.
“But there are people jamming 20 people into a house, and milking the money out of the kids and doing the wrong thing. There is a bit of work to be done.”
Stoner, the Guardian’s guide to the world of foreign backpackers, came to Australia straight after school and did her 88 days.
“I saw a problem in the system,” she says. “The farmers don’t treat you very well. Some do. But in my experience some of the farmers were rude, sexist. There was some sexual harassment - and it was just accepted.
“I was really surprised as to how the backpackers and everyone just put up with it.”
In her case, one farmer suggested that she and her friend, Elle, who was also 18, might like to pick peaches naked because it was a hot day. The two teenagers, just out of school, and on an isolated farm, were terrified, especially when the farmer returned 20 minutes later.
This low-level sexual harassment pales in comparison with other reports of sexual exploitation.
Milne says he has heard of farmers offering to sign off young women’s paperwork in return for sex. Others reported being offered the easier jobs in the house or the packing shed in return for sexual favours.
More commonly, the problems encountered by backpackers relate to financial exploitation.
The Guardian met three young women living in the caravan park on the edge of the country town. They have lost their jobs and been evicted from the Mallee Inn hostel in nearby Red Cliffs after querying their pay and conditions.
Sophie Etheridge, a 23-year-old law graduate from the UK, has pulled the labour hire contractor, Darren Tyson, up because she was being paid a piecework rate when she had not signed a piecework agreement as required under the Fair Work Act.
Her friends, Hattie Richards and Beth Longstaff, also 23, had been put on jobs that were paid at the minimum hourly rate, but Etheridge had been put on harvesting almonds, which was paid by the hectare picked, using machinery that shakes the trees and drops the nuts on tarpaulins spread beneath, which are then gathered by workers.
“I didn’t even know what a hectare was,” Etheridge says ruefully.
The biggest problem, she says, was the slow pace that the trailers full of almonds were able to go in the soft soil, coupled with delays when they reached the unloading facility.
According to Etheridge, she sometimes waited 40 minutes to unload and it was impossible to earn a decent wage. She says that for six days’ work she was paid just $550 (€354).
When Etheridge queried why she had been given a piecework rate when she had not signed an agreement, as required by the Fair Work Act, she says Tyson became angry and defensive. She also queried whether he was paying the incorrect minimum wage to her friends, as it did not appear to include the casual loading.
Soon the entire hostel was up in arms and meetings were held to discuss pay.
Tyson agreed to pay the additional wages but Etheridge was called to a meeting and given just three hours to pack her things and leave the hostel.
The Guardian approached Tyson for comment regarding the allegations made by Etheridge. He agrees he did not initially get the backpackers to sign piecework agreements but this was because there had been a sudden change in how the almond farm wished to pay the workers.
He insists that all workers’ pay was reviewed and no one was left out of pocket. As for Etheridge and her two friends, he says he did ask them to leave as the almond farm no longer wanted to employ them after the furore.
“I am not going to repeat the names they called me and my hostel staff,” he says. “It was disgraceful.”
Etheridge’s experience is not unusual. Piecework rates make it very difficult for inexperienced pickers to make a decent wage, yet some backpackers are so desperate to complete their 88 days they feel they have no option but to take the work, particularly if they have paid for their accommodation in advance.
Roulstone says the union generally opposes the payment of piecework rates, and some farmers told the Guardian they avoided putting backpackers on picking work because they were not fast enough.
Straight-out underpayment is also rife. An online survey of 4,322 temporary migrants - which included backpackers, students and people on temporary work visas - found that almost half the participants reported being paid $15 an hour or less when the minimum wage at the time was $21.15.
Perhaps the most disturbing finding was that backpackers and students were aware they were being exploited and were underpaid. But they believed that it was part and parcel of being on that class of visa.
Backpackers often find themselves stuck.
Hostel owners have been known to clip the ticket in numerous ways: $170 a week for a bed in a room with six others, payable in advance, $5 to $10 a day to drive the backpackers to the farm and, sometimes, job-finding fees.
If there is no work, backpackers can quickly find their bill for accommodation mounting and they have no money to get out of town.
“Unfortunately you have hostel owners who are taking people’s money - a lot of money - and charging to deliver them to a property, charging them for food - basically, these kids were working for nothing,” Milne says.
“I have spoken to quite a lot of them and they were just distraught because they were caught in a bind, and they couldn’t get out of. It’s distressing seeing kids treated like that. I hate it.”
A spokesman for the Department of Jobs and Small Business says working holiday makers are entitled to the same basic rights and protections as Australians under workplace laws.
“Employers who engage in criminal conduct against temporary residents are subject to the full force of Australian criminal law,” he said, adding: “The government takes issues of workplace safety and migrant worker exploitation very seriously and has recently strengthened the Fair Work Act to more effectively deter the underpayment of workers.”
But the Australian Workers’ Union says there’s an urgent need for more safeguards for backpackers.
Roulstone says three states are introducing requirements for labour hire companies to be licensed. He says the government needs to provide some incentives for employers to provide basic training on rights and conditions for backpackers.
“It would also be nice if the government put real resources into dealing with complaints, so Fair Work could get out there quickly and deal with incidences of exploitation,” Roulstone says. “Too often, the shonky operators and the complainants have moved on before Fair Work can get involved.”
There are good operators out there.
Rob Mansell has backpackers who stay for the entire 88 days on his citrus farm 65km outside Mildura. His son married a German woman who came through, and he keeps in touch with a large number of his former employees.
He says the 88-day policy is essential to provide him with a flexible workforce, particularly to help with the packing of fruit.
Milne says the exploitation of backpackers is a problem Australia needs to address.
“If my children went over to another country I would want them to be treated well,” he says. “You want them to have a really good experience and so when they go home they go, ‘Australia was a really great place, Mildura was a great place to visit, and I would go back there.’”
- Guardian Service