Allegations of sexual harassment and racism as new report finds majority of backpackers are underpaid

A backpacker is taking her story to Canberra to advocate for an end to the underpayment of workers in the agricultural sector and for better working conditions.

Kate says the underpayment of backpackers is an issue that needs to be addressed and she is taking her concerns to Canberra.

Kate says the underpayment of backpackers is an issue that needs to be addressed and she is taking her concerns to Canberra. Source: Supplied

When Kate came to Australia from Taiwan in 2019 before the pandemic she was attracted by advertisements promising an adventure - enjoying a holiday while earning a wage.

But she found the reality was somewhat different. 

Put to work on a lemon and mandarin farm, she earned below the minimum wage - collecting $24 a day on piece rate rather than an hourly wage cash-in-hand. 


But it was living conditions that she was unprepared for. 

"I was dumpster diving for food and had to live in one room with seven other people."

A job ad for one strawberry farm specified they wanted "Asian workers only". 

"I think that's so discriminatory – just because we Asians are willing to break our backs picking the strawberries."

At one farm she was sexually harassed and told she would put up with it, if she wanted to keep her job.

"During this period there was a lockdown and it was very hard to find a job, that is why I tolerated it."

She ended up leaving, but she wished she had the courage to do it sooner. 

"My advice to others is to protect yourself. When facing sexual harassment by the labour hire contractors or the employer, you don't have do it, or tolerate that. Run away, leave them."

Kate's experience is one of a number documented in a new report which has found that 78 per cent of more than 1300 workers surveyed in Australia's horticulture industry are being paid below the minimum wage, with some being paid as little as $9 a day. 

Kate's Story I’m 32, I came to Australia from Taiwan on a working holiday visa. I wanted to work and travel around the different landscape of this country, meeting people from different cultures. After I got here, I discovered all us backpackers had to wo
Kate says she was shocked at some of the working conditions she was subjected to working at fruit farms in South Australia and Queensland. Source: Supplied

The report by Migrant Workers’ Centre and Unions NSW surveyed workers between late September 2020 until late February 2021.

Mark Morey from Unions NSW said that in many instances of underpayment, the workers were on a piece rate - paid according to the amount of fruit produce picked in buckets - rather than an hourly rate. 

"On top of that some of these employers are charging workers for accommodation and food. The horror of what is actually going in our regional and rural areas is quite frightening. These migrant workers and young Australians are being exploited and it has to stop."

Mr Morey is heading to Canberra with Kate to raise concerns with MPs over underpayment in the sector. 

"I want politicians to treat and take care of backpackers because we are the people who take the jobs that Australians don't want to do," Kate said. 

"For example, the Prime Minister during the COVID pandemic said if you don't have enough money then it is time to go home. I was very offended by those remarks - and so were my friends who are also backpackers - because we contribute to the country's economy.

"And we shouldn't be dispensed of like this."

He said requests to meet with the Agriculture Minister David Littleproud were rejected and no response was received from the National Farmers Federation. 

But meetings are in place with crossbench senators, MPs from One Nation, the Greens party and the Labor party.  

'Time for significant intervention'

"The research we have done, and that a number of academics [have done], has shown that this is not just a one-off. This is not a case of one bad apple in the barrel. This has become a business model. The industry has been unable to self-regulate. Now it is time to have significant [government] intervention to ensure workers are not being ripped off in regional and rural communities."

Matt Kunkel from the Migrant Workers’ Centre in Victoria said there is a clear role for the federal government to ensure the working conditions are appropriate and that underpayment is not allowed to go unchecked.

"We've had so many [parliamentary] inquiries. We have had exposés. We have had reports. And everybody wrings their hands together and says how bad it is. But there are some very clear steps the government could take and they're all outlined in our report.

"But critically the government just needs to get in there and ensure that the industrial laws in this country are actually followed by people all up and down the supply chain." 

The Fair Work Ombudsman found after a two-year investigation in 2016, that 66 per cent of 4,000 people on working holiday visas reported underpayment. Fifty-nine per cent agreed that backpackers were unlikely to report mistreatment in case their work is not signed off by the employer.

To qualify for a second year on their temporary visa, backpackers are required to fulfil a condition of 88 days of specified paid work in a designated regional area and industry.

Mr Morey said that this condition has been exploited by employers.

"Underpayment should not be widespread."

Call to regulate labour hire companies

The National Farmers Federation said an accreditation system to crack down on rogue labour hire companies would help to prevent underpayment of workers in the sector.

"The NFF has long called for the introduction of a national labour hire regulation scheme, to hold labour hire entities to account, which research shows is a link in the ag workforce, where wrong doing occurs," National Farmers' Federation CEO Tony Mahar told SBS News. 

"The introduction of a dedicated agriculture visa solution as called for by NFF for four years now, would ensure foreign workers holding the visa would only be placed with fully accredited employers.

The body is also urging employees to report underpayment. 

"Fruit and vegetable farmers who don’t uphold the law are not only ripping off workers, but are also letting down their industry, at time when many are facing a dire workforce shortage. They must be held to account.

"Horticulture workers who believe they have been underpaid must report their experience to the relevant authority."

Mr Kunkel said he wants licensing arrangements in place as well. 

"What this report calls for is a national labour hire licensing scheme, which would be a really big step towards driving out some of the worst actors in this sector. What we need is a licensing scheme, not just a registration scheme. We need people to actually prove that they are fit and proper people to employ workers in this way."

'Know your rights'

Marie from France has worked across six farms in Australia in two years and said her English skills shielded her from the worst abuse from employers. 

"For example, it never happened to me, but it happened to people I know that the farmers would withhold their wages. Sometimes it is like modern slavery.

"It is okay that we have to work for the right to stay another year. I have no problem with that. I just don't want to be told that we are lazy and that they can replace us whenever we want; to be told they can pay us whatever they want." 

She said there were social media networks in place where backpackers could spread the word about farmers who were underpaying workers or who had reputation for mistreating workers, but that many new arrivals felt they had little choice.

"My advice is not to rush and accept the first job that comes your way. Don't get stuck in a job just because you think it is the only option." 

She recalls one incident where her former boyfriend had an accident on the farm. He crushed his fingers under a hammer. The employer had attempted to avoid paying for the cost of the operation and told them to stay quiet about what happened. 

"Know your rights. When the injury happened to my boyfriend, we did not know if he had any rights to claim it as a workplace accident. Or separately, even if we could claim penalty rates for working weekends. It is good to know your working rights." 

Advocates are calling for the federal government to ensure workers in the agricultural sector are paid the minimum wage.
Advocates are calling for the federal government to ensure workers in the agricultural sector are paid the minimum wage. Source: Supplied

She said the instances when she was underpaid, the pay was a piece rate arrangement - not an hourly wage. 

"One one avocado farm, I was actually offered a bonus to stay for whole season. And I don't think that would have happened before the pandemic. And for example, a lot of the fruit picking jobs I'm seeing advertised right now are hourly rate not piece rate anymore.

"They need to attract backpackers. Because we're so used to settling for low incomes. It is kind of gamechanger when it is an hourly rate."

She disagreed with arguments that piece rate encourages more productivity and less laziness from workers.

"Everywhere I went everyone was working really hard. And I was tree planting... We were planting almond trees. We were paid on an hourly basis. And I think the minimum the employer was expecting from us was 3,000 trees a day. And we were planting 5,000.

"Of course some people are going to be lazy. But it the same as when we were picking avocados. We were paid on an hourly basis. And we were picking faster than what the farmer was expecting."

During the pandemic, Marie said she contemplated returning to France but the worsening COVID-19 situation meant she felt safer staying in Australia. 

"We just want to be treated humanely and with respect."

9 min read
Published 15 June 2021 at 6:01am
By Biwa Kwan