Backpacking chemist threatened “I’ll break your f…ing arms”
A backpacking chemist has become the latest in a long series of young fruit-pickers claiming they have been mistreated and exploited on an Australian farm. Matt Workman (pictured), yes a qualified chemist from Liverpool, UK, says that during his first fortnight working in an orchard in Queensland, his supervisor was verbally abusive and physically attacked him.
“I arrived in Australia three weeks ago with my fiancee and started apple picking two days after,” he told News. “Within our first two weeks at the farm, the supervisor has hit me on the arm and threatened to break my arms.”
(Edit. be interesting to know if this was a farmer’s employee or a labour hire contractor)
The travel blogger said he was trying to drive a tractor for the first time, with little instruction, when his supervisor hit his arm off the wheel, bent his thumb back and shouted: “Do you hear that f***ing sound, if you leave that starter motor running again I’ll break your f***ing arms. The last guy who did that nearly got his lights punched out. I felt threatened to the point I asked my fiancee to shout ‘watch out!’ if she sees him running up behind me again.”
The backpacker says he and his fiancee on occasions made as little as $30 ($4.29 per hour) for a seven-hour working day because their earnings depend on how many bins they fill, and the apples are mostly rotten and have to be thrown away. These rates are known to cause issues in relation to receiving a 417 extension.
While they liked their hostel, their beds cost $205 per person per week, plus a $50 per person refundable bond, leaving them struggling for cash on their meagre earnings. “There is also no Wi-Fi at the hostel and it will cost you $4 every time you need to do a wash, so when you first arrive at the hostel you will have to pay $510 as a couple before earning anything,” said Matt. The accommodation was “spacious and clean” with friendly owners, but Matt felt uneasy at being sent to work at a farm where he felt unsafe.
“I have seen people crying, people fear being sacked and kicked out of the hostel with nowhere to go in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “We have seen numerous people come and go from the hostel, most of them have been forced to leave after being fired” he added.
Worst of all is the intimidation on the farm. “We experience verbal abuse every day,” he said. “It is impossible to make a complaint without risking being evicted without notice. “We have witnessed a total of 15 people leave the hostel in the first two weeks due to being fired from their jobs or not being able to cope with the supervisors.”
He said a Swedish backpacker who had broken her toe on the farm and taken two days off was told by the supervisor, “It’s not hard to come to work.” Another farm worker who put his feet on the man’s sofa was forced out of his house and others were fired from a nearby farm for being “too slow” or bruising the delicate fruit.
“If he finds more than three apples in a bin with bruises then the bin will not be counted and we will not receive any pay,” said Matt. He and Becky have now moved to the packing shed for what Matt calls “backbreaking work” but are finally being paid by the hour and achieving minimum wage.
The British backpacker says he has contacted the Queensland Workplace Bullying Line and was passed on to Police Line, but is apprehensive about taking the matter further. (Edit. defeats the purpose of the Bullying Line doesn’t it?)
The safety of foreign workers employed on Australian farms has come under the spotlight in the past few years after dozens of allegations of verbal and physical abuse, exploitation, sexual assault, underpayment or no payment and dangerous conditions.
A report into labour hire in Queensland published in June 2016 highlighted “exploitation and mistreatment of workers, the undercutting of employment conditions, and a range of other illegal or questionable practices.” It said some firms saw labour hire as a way of cost-cutting by minimising responsibilities towards their workforce, and that such employees often faced low rates of pay, fewer opportunities for training and higher rates of occupational injury than others.
The inquiry received evidence of “manipulation and mistreatment” of vulnerable — particularly overseas — workers, with employees required to provide sexual favours to obtain work; workers placed in overcrowded, substandard accommodation at a high price; employers holding workers’ passports and trapping them; a lack of safety equipment or training; and a failure to provide pay slips, pay tax or pay the minimum wage.
Australia is one of the few countries in the world with no regulation or licensing arrangements for labour hire companies, in the face of growing pressure from the International Labour Organisation.
Several commentors said better resourcing of the Fair Work Ombudsman would lead to better enforcement of the rules, with the FWO often failing to inspect the most notorious farms, or advertising when it would hold inspections, allowing rogue operators to evade detection.
A spokesperson for the FWO said it released its 417 Visa-holder Inquiry Report into workplace conditions and wages in October, making a series of recommendations around enhancing the regulatory framework, information, education, compliance and support, highlighting cases of worker exploitation in regional Australia.
Earlier this month, Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James appeared before the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee Inquiry into the Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Vulnerable Workers) Bill 2017.
The FWO’s Harvest Trail Inquiry has concluded and the findings will be released later this year. Enforcement action has been initiated against a number of horticulture employers as a result of the inquiry, including against labour-hire company HTA Farmings Pty Ltd for alleged serious contraventions of record-keeping laws relating to 265 employees.
The FWO is also working with Taskforce Cadena, the Phoenix Taskforce and other state and federal agencies to share intelligence relating to overseas workers’ rights in regional areas.
In the 2015-16 financial year, 76 per cent of litigations started by the FWO related to alleged exploitation of overseas workers. Backpackers on working holiday visas accounted for the highest level of pay disputes raised with the agency, most of them casual workers in NSW or Queensland.
Sourced by Chris Harrison
Employers and employees, including international students, seeking advice or assistance can visit www.fairwork.gov.au or call the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94.
FWO also recently launched an Anonymous Report function so community members can highlight potential workplace issues.
Source: Weekly Times