The mother of a young woman murdered at a Queensland hostel has been inundated with “horror stories” from backpackers trying to complete their 88 days of farm work.
- Mother of murdered backpacker gathering complaints from travellers working on Australian farms
- Backpacker working in north Queensland says he was lured to hostel with promise of work that took weeks to eventuate
- Backpacker in Bowen says hostel owner found ‘sly ways’ to touch female workers
- Another in Bundaberg lost his thumb in an accident on first day at job
Rosie Ayliffe is campaigning for reform of what she says is a flawed visa scheme that puts young lives at risk.
Her daughter Mia Ayliffe-Chung, 20, was murdered last August, while undertaking the rural work required to get a one-year extension to her 417 visa.
Ms Ayliffe has spent the past few months gathering stories from backpackers who have travelled to Australia and experienced the “dark side” of an industry that is crucial to the agricultural sector.
Although many backpackers have enjoyable, positive experiences on the 88-day farm work scheme, many others complain of financial, sexual and psychological abuse.
Ms Ayliffe, an English teacher from Derbyshire in the UK, has heard claims of rent rip-offs, sexual assault and false promises of work.
Four of the backpackers who have been in touch with her shared their stories with Australian Story.
Rosie Ayliffe embarked on a road trip around rural Australia in May to investigate backpacker working conditions. (Supplied: Michael Amendolia)
‘I remember screaming for him to stop’: Chelsey’s story
Last year, after struggling to find work, Canadian backpacker Chelsey was offered a job on a grape farm in Mildura.
“The first day was alright, but then the farmer started to make comments about how great I would look in leggings,” she said.
The farmer was driving Chelsey back to her hostel one night when he lunged across the seat towards her.
Chelsey jumped out of the car, falling backwards into a ditch and the farmer climbed on top of her.
“I crossed my legs, had my arms covering me. He was reaching to undo his pants and that was when I just started punching and kicking as hard as I could,” she said.
“I just remember screaming for him to stop.”
The ordeal came to a sudden end when the farmer stood up and walked back to his car.
“At that point I was in the middle of nowhere — I didn’t really have a choice other than to get back in the truck with him and hope that he drove me all the way home,” Chelsey said.
“We travelled in complete silence back to the hostel and when he left I just crumbled.”
Chelsey reported the incident, however, she said police did not pursue charges because it was “her word against his”.
“He had scratches and bruises and a black eye. The police asked him, ‘why do you have a black eye?’ And his excuse was that I just reached over and just punched him in the face when he was driving me home,” Chelsey said.
Late last year police informed Chelsey that another female backpacker claimed she had been sexually assaulted by the same farmer.
This time police pressed charges and in May the man pleaded guilty and was convicted of sexual assault.
Chelsey hopes that by telling her story she will encourage other backpackers to speak out. She would like to see a central register of farms and hostels that are licensed where backpackers can go knowing they will be safe.
‘The rooms were like prison cells’: Djuro’s story
Djuro Vukotic had high hopes for his working holiday in Australia.
“My idea of Australia must be back from when I was 10 years old — it was like Steve Irwin, right?” he said.
“Australian people, very nice nature, kind. And I imagined the farm work, it must be a similar experience.”
Djuro said he was not afraid of hard work, but his efforts to find jobs had been thwarted by a system he says is broken.
“You’re having these working hostels that are connected to the farm, so you’re not able to find the farm work without going into the working hostels,” he said.
“So there’s a chain that is connected here and that chain is very, very rusty.”
Backpacker Djuro Vukotic says it is unfair to expect backpackers to pay high rates for rooms while waiting for work. (Supplied: Facebook)
On one occasion Djuro travelled to a town in Queensland after a hostel owner promised him work.
Five weeks later he was still waiting for work, but in the meantime had to pay $200 a week for a bed in a shared room in what he says was sub-standard accommodation.
He has worked on farms where toilet breaks are not allowed, where drones are used to monitor workers and where farmers are verbally abusive.
He spoke of one hostel in Shepparton and the pear-picking job that came with it.
“The rooms were like prison cells. People were freezing during the night,” Djuro said.
“We would get paid $33 for a full bin. That’s 10 hours of work — I was earning $90 and I’m not a slow worker — I’m usually the faster worker.”
Djuro is angry with the way he and his fellow travellers are treated by some farms and hostels.
“We as backpackers should unite and actually stand up to make a difference here. And it has to start from the government because the government requires you to do the 88 days,” he said.
‘He would rub up against us’: Jo-Anne’s story
Backpacker Jo-Anne Cooke says one of her farm-work employers would disturb women while they were in the shower. (Supplied: Jo-Anne Cooke)
Jo-Anne Cooke had a positive experience when she undertook her 88 days of farm work at a large berry picking operation in Queensland. She was paid the minimum wage and completed her 88 days in exactly that time.
She wanted to make some extra money, so she recently travelled with friends to do farm work in Bowen.
Jo-Anne Cooke has had two very different experiences on Queensland farms. (Supplied: Jo-Anne Cooke)
“I went through the Harvest Trail site, which is government-run, and rang up one of the listed hostels. When we got there the farm work that they promised didn’t materialise,” she said.
“We had to pay to stay there but there were no jobs. And he had promised us that there would be. Instead he asked us to work around the hostel for $15 an hour but it would come off our rent.”
Although Jo-Anne is angry at the financially exploitative practises, it was the sexually predatory behaviour of the hostel owner that most upset her.
“He would find sly ways to touch the girls; he would rub up against us,” she said.
“When we were in the showers, which had half see-through glass, he would come in on some excuse that he had an urgent message to deliver.”
Then there was the condition of the hostel itself. The owner asked some of the young men staying at the hostel to dig holes for a new fence but a local man alerted them to the presence of asbestos.
Jo-Anne says the hostel owner claimed the asbestos was harmless, but when he overheard them talking about calling the council, he immediately arranged for the area to be concreted over.
‘The pain was excruciating’: Marcel’s story
Marcel returned to the farm after surgery but suffered panic attacks and had to cease working. (Supplied: Marcel Weiser)
Marcel Weiser arrived in Australia late last year and was keen to complete 88 days of regional work.
He went to work on a sweet potato farm in Bundaberg but on his first day on the job lost his left thumb in an accident.
“I was trying to remove a potato and heard a crunch and it was the sound of my thumb caught in the machinery,” he said.
“The machine had been switched off but was switched on again very quickly and my hand was trapped. When I pulled out my hand my left thumb was missing.”
Marcel, who is left handed, says the accident could have been avoided had there been adequate supervision and training.
“I had never done this sort of work before and we were given no more than a 15 or 30 second safety induction. I was told that straight after my accident a farm supervisor gave the workers a 20 minute talk and told everybody specifically where not to put their hands,” he said.
Two months later Marcel returned to the farm to complete his 88 days and says the owners were very supportive.
However, he suffered panic attacks from being back at the farm where the accident occurred, ongoing pain from his injury and was unable to continue working.
‘We need backpackers more than they need us’
As well as meeting with backpackers, Ms Ayliffe questioned politicians on the way the 417 visa farm-work scheme is run.
One politician she met was Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, part of a cross-party committee looking into modern-day slavery.
“Most employers do the right thing,” Senator Reynolds said.
“They pay them well and they sign off after 88 days. But there are some unscrupulous employers who are abusing these young backpackers because they know they need to get their signature.”
Senator Reynolds said backpackers were doing jobs Australians would not do anymore, so there was a responsibility to ensure a positive experience.
“The bottom line is, we need them more than they need us,” she said.
Between a quarter and a third of the agricultural workforce in Australia is provided by backpacker labour.
Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association chairman Allan Mahoney said he had spent a decade fighting for the rights of backpackers and took his duty to look after young visitors to his farm seriously.
“When our backpackers are on our farms they are ours,” he said.
“We’ve got to look after someone else’s children so you do your best and so do [other] compliant growers”.
Part two of Australian Story – Long Way From Home airs tonight on ABC TV at 8:00pm