BYTE THREE: 88 Days, personal experiences, successes and peer to peer advice

July 5th, 2018 | | industry

Backpackers continue to come forward with stories of exploitation and misadventure, their reports also flood social media groups and overseas news sites. But is the mainstream media responsible for magnifying an issue that only affects a small percentage of backpackers, or is it an accurate depiction of a nationwide crisis? The Byte continues its investigation.

While state governments in Queensland, South Australia, and Victoria have finally stepped up to the plate with new labour hire licensing to help combat the issue of ‘dodgy labour hire contractors’. Time will only tell if these schemes are the answers to multi-faceted issues and if the other states will follow suit. Although maybe the concept that doing hard labour so that a young immigrant can be granted the right to live in Australia for another year is modern-day bondage?

Is the 88 days program a sad excuse for cheap labour or a true cultural exchange?

In October 2016, the Fair Work Ombudsman conducted an inquiry into the wages and conditions of 417 visa holders. As part of the 63-page report, the FWO found tension between “the public policy intention of the 417 visa program as a ‘cultural exchange’ and the use of the visa program as source of labour” (FWO). Advocates of the scheme, particularly from the backpacking and farming sectors see rural and regional experiences as integral to having a truly ‘Aussie travel experience’. One they rightly say can’t be had in the city.

So where do backpackers share their experiences? People take to Facebook when they’re particularly happy about an experience, or extremely upset. Generally, it seems as though backpackers either hate their farm work or love it. There is very little in between.

Negative Experiences

One backpacker from the UK who chooses to remain anonymous, strongly believes that 88 days is an awful program: “I would prefer if the Australian government changed it, if we could just pay for our second year visa and not have to do the 88 days, but I understand that if that were to happen, the farms would be empty.” He had just quit his first citrus picking job in Mildura after just six days, because the low wages and unsanitary living conditions. His hostel near the farm site was smelly, dirty and cramped. Finally, he suspected the hostel owner to be a drug dealer.

Citrus picking in Mildura

Kiera Burke, another backpacker from the UK, has quit her watermelon picking job in Home Hill, Queensland and is struggling to find another farm job to go towards her 88 days. Though Kiera says watermelon picking was fun, she found herself without work for five weeks at one point, to which she partially claims ‘gender discrimination’: “They don’t take many girls on, mainly in the packing shed or the trailer. Boys get jobs easier than girls, it’s more inconsistent, which I think is disgraceful.”

The limited work available for women, on top of limited for farm jobs available at some times of year, corners labourers into what has referred to as modern-day bonding (if not by debt then by visa sign off). Workers are bonded to their labour hire contractors, and may have their visa extension refused or delayed if they are unable to find (decent) work, which is when the labour hire licensing schemes come into play.

A backpacker from Spain, Adrián Van Hal Benavides, bought a car from Brisbane and drove 2000km to Mildura – “in the middle of nowhere in Australia”— which took two days by car. Adrián had worked 8 to 10 hours a day picking mandarins. He was able to fill two large bins, though wasn’t even able to make $150 on the first day, so he abandoned his idea of completing 88 days of work and to stay a second year altogether, and he headed to Melbourne, where he’s living now. “Farm work is not to make money here, it’s just to get your 88 days signed off,” Adrian says.

Success Stories

In other respects, farmers are also bonded to overseas labour workers, this is due to the lack of Australian labour willing to work on farms. Louice Isaaksson, a Swedish backpacker who had already completed her farm work, thinks the 88 days program is smart. “Obviously you can’t force anyone to work in a farm, but the produce and the harvesting is very important for Australia’s economy and they need workers and young people want to travel to Australia because it’s a beautiful country. Taking an advantage of people who want to stay a longer time if they do the farm work. It’s smart; it’s really clever,” Louice says. “I also feel important because I know I did something good for the country.”

One backpacker from Scotland says, “Australian farmers are getting a bad rap due to other farmers and city people expecting the work to be easy … My partner and I did our 88 days and loved farm work so much we stayed an extra month on the first farm and have since found another farm job after finishing our first season.” She went on to express that her boss “was the nicest guy ever,” and would give them free meat and take them to other farms for a proper outback experience. “Our old boss still phones us weekly to check in on how we’re going at the new farm and we are planning on going back for the next season in October.”

It may just be luck, but Cassandra Hartwig, a backpacker from Canada, is having a similarly positive experience at a blueberry farm in Grafton, NSW. While looking for farmwork in Cairns, Cassandra made a friend at a hostel who owns share houses in Grafton, and happens to be friends with the manager of the farm she now works at. “He called the manager up/gave us his contact info and made sure there was work for us before we came down. He also picked us up from the bus and brought us to the house because we don’t have a car. Super good guy,” Cassandra says. Though Cassandra’s circumstance may be right place / right time, it is valid evidence that things can work out well.

A backpacker from Canada has worked on a number of farms, and has seen opposite sides of the spectrum. He describes the banana farm he worked on in Tully as “the worst experience of [his] life.” He went on, “the people you had to work for are not the nicest. It makes it tough to get out of bed in the morning knowing your boss is going to yell at you the second you get there.” However, he now works on a turf farm nearly, where he fertilizes the turf, and he absolutely loves it.

Backpacker to Backpacker Advice

To keep that promise of cultural exchange, it’s up to backpackers to do farm work for the culture. Tom, a backpacker from the UK, had found farm work, but says his boss hadn’t been giving him his payslips. He and his partner have since moved to Renmark, an obscure farm town, not too far from Mildura, without all the ugly news stories. Tom advises, “find somewhere more obscure, a lot more friendly. Go to Tully for the money, but for the experience, go somewhere more obscure.”

Renmark Farm

This is easier said than done, so third party agencies are here to help. Ella is a backpacker from the UK. She had been struggling to look for work to count towards her 88 days, especially after hearing some of the horror stories from the news media and friends who had been having bad experiences. She decided to set up her 88 days with a local agency, hedging it was a safer bet, they have placed her in a gardening and maintenance job in Queensland. She said “for the sake of a small agency placement fee I would rather know where I’m going, know I’ll get work when I get there and have some recourse back to the agency if I need it.

In closing

“Farm work is not for everyone,” Louice says, and she is right. For every backpacker who aims to complete their 88 days, here is a piece of advice for how to “do it right”— to get the utmost cultural experience and avoid exploitation and mistreatment. BUYER BEWARE and do your research first.

Also, Tourism Australia is promoting this visa and inviting the world’s young people to visit and spend time with us. So first and foremost they are our ‘guests’ and ought not be mistreated. They are the sons and daughters of parents who as part of the exchange are the hosts of our sons and daughters. It’s time the backpacking and farming community stood up and respected that. It’s time we started treating them the way we would wish ours to be treated abroad.

Finally, when it comes down to it, the working holiday visa is not an agricultural labour visa, it is a cultural exchange. Change is required.

Written by Samantha Melamed