A lack of information on labour entitlements and limited English language skills expose working-holiday makers to exploitation.
(Transcript from World News Radio)
Australia's Working Holiday visa program has grown to attract about a quarter-of-a-million visitors a year.
It's estimated to contribute about three-billion dollars to the Australian economy, through their spending.
But the Fair Work Ombudsman and community organisations are warning a lack of information on labour entitlements and limited English language skills expose working-holiday makers to underpayment and unsafe work conditions.
Marina Freri reports.
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Italian political science graduate Claudia Trave is one of the tens-of-thousands of young foreigners to head for Australia's farming sector as part of her working holiday.
At her first job in the Mildura area of Victoria, though, she was paid only about $3 an hour.
"I worked for one Italian farmer to pick beans. After six hours it was just $20. I saw this and I said to him "I don't come back tomorrow because I'm not slave." I worked cash in hand without contract, so it was very bad."
The Working Holiday visa program allows visitors aged 30 or under to stay and work in Australia for at least 12 months.
When it began in 1975, it was covered in bilateral agreements with Britain, Canada and Ireland.
Now, it involves 29 nations.
Young citizens of these countries are given one-year visas that allow them to work for up to six months for a single employer.
Most agreements also allow a second one-year visa, if the young people agree to carry out specified work in regional farms, fisheries, mines or construction sites.
Last financial year, almost 40,000 took up the second year option, with most working on farms.
Claudia Trave says like many other young people, she was willing to work as a fruit picker.
But she says they have to compete for work with some who are willing to work for extremely low wages.
"Chinese people, they are paid less, than European backpackers, $2.50 each bin (bucket of produce picked). It's a thing that everyone knows. And Chinese backpackers are in different hostels from European backpackers."
The Fair Work Ombudsman says it's received persistent complaints from young foreign workers about under-payment on Australian farms.
Senior Inspector Jenny Crook, who led raids last year on strawberry farms in the Caboolture area of Queensland, says international backpackers are vulnerable.
"The Fair Work Ombudsman is continuing to maintain a close eye on this industry, particularly around Caboolture and in other seasonal harvest areas throughout Australia, because the harvest work does attract a lot of foreign workers. And we see these workers as possibly vulnerable to exploitation or inadvertent underpayment. And this is because they are generally unaware of what they should be receiving or where to turn to for information and advice."
Working Holiday Makers have the same rights as Australian workers, including minimum wages and pay conditions.
For the horticulture sector, that means an hourly rate of about $16 for full-time and part-time adults and $20 for casuals.
If they think they could earn more than at the hourly rate, they can also sign an agreement to be paid per bucket of produce picked.
But Jenny Crook from the Fair Work Ombudsman says cases of inadvertent and deliberate underpayment in the agriculture sector are common.
"Unfortunately in this industry, we do see quite a lot of underpayments. Over the past couple of years the FWO has investigated around 230 complaints in this industry and we recovered about $80,000 for 107 workers. About a third of those were visa holders on a working holiday visa and for those we recovered about $13,500 in respect of 32 workers."
But some community groups, like the Korean Society of Sydney, believe cases of exploitation are under-reported.
The association's general manager, Sherman Kim, says few young South Koreans would consider reporting under-payment.
"Underpay is very popular (sic) in Korean working holiday community. It's case by case, they got a bucket rate of $1-$2 per bucket. Or some people have got a full time job, but they don't have enough payment. If we compare the award (Horticulture Award) is very low."
Sherman Kim stresses that it's not necessarily the fault of Australian farmers when casual workers are under-paid.
He says often the farmers are paying the right amounts, but by the time they get to the workers, they've been diluted through a complex chain of recruiters and contractors.
"The farm owner pays the right amount to the workers, but the farm owner has contractors, contractors have subcontractors and then sub-subcontractors and finally in the pyramid there's the workers, Korean workers. That's why they can't get the money...It's always under (award rates)."
One agency advertising on the Gumtree website aims to attract Asian backpackers as fruit pickers, stating that fluency in Korean, Japanese or Mandarin could be advantageous.
The agency advertises piecework rates starting at $1 a box for pears and casual hourly rates between $14 and $16.
But it seems reluctant to answer questions about the pay rates.
"Q: I'm writing a story about working holiday makers working in Australian farms and I was wondering if you had a couple of minutes for a quick chat..." A: "Ok, yes sure" Q:" Can I ask you what's the main nationality of the people working with your agency?" A: "It varies, there's no main nationality." Q: "I had a look at some of your ads on Gumtree, and some of them offer rates which are below the award" a: "Ok..." q: "I've seen rates of $14, $16 an hour for casual employment and that should be of $20.30...can you tell me why?" a: "I shouldn't be on that..." - hang up noise - Q: Excuse me?"
Charles Armstrong, from the National Farmers' Federation, defends the scheme saying local workers are reluctant to relocate to rural Australia for temporary jobs.
He says Working Holiday makers are yet to fill the national demand for seasonal fruit-pickers.
"The supply of labour becomes so tight that it's more than just filling a local shortage. They are providing a very much needed service. A lot of farmers, a lot of horticulture people in particular having great difficulty in getting pickers these days, particularly Australian pickers."
Mr Armstrong says he doesn't think underpayment in the agriculture sector is widespread, but concedes he finds piece rates as low as $1 per box "surprising".
He blames underpayment on contracting agencies.
"The farmer starts the morning with 15 or 20 backpackers or foreign workers turning up on his doorstep and ready to go picking. And for him to verify all details of those, when he's employed a contractor or middleman to do that it obviously creates a problem. But we at NFF are seriously looking at the necessity for better regulations in terms of contractors."
A backpacker from Germany, Marc Stoiber, says some hostels providing accommodation for Working Holiday Makers act as contractors for employers.
But he says sometimes the payments from seasonal work doesn't cover the accommodation costs.
"We thought when we checked into a hostel that takes $200 every week for accommodation and job, we expect a job where we can earn a little bit more than that. Because five hours of work, (paid) $20 an hour, that's only $100 a week. So we weren't able to even pay our rent."
The owner of one hostel in Queensland, who wishes to remain anonymous, agrees that Working Holiday Makers in the horticulture industry can face difficulty earning enough to pay for their accommodation.
She points out that sometimes, natural events such as heavy rain and floods disrupt harvest times, and limit the amount the young people can earn.
This particular owner claims any of the young people who use her legal hostel do get paid the right amounts when they are able to work - and it's those who are hired from illegal hostels who end up being underpaid.
But one 26-year-old British backpacker told SBS underpaid jobs can also be found through legal hostels.
And she says her hours of work in a large tomato shed, near Bundaberg, were excessive.
"We would often work 14 hours a day 7 days a week. which again, we were up for doing. However as more and more tomatoes were being picked, the manager decided to increase the speed of the machine in order for us to cram as much work into one shift as possible. This caused a few people to have a lot of back pain and a few workers including one of the permanent workers burst into tears on a number of occasions.The manager didn't see us as human beings, we were merely part of the machine to her, while we were running about like headless chickens constantly fearful of losing our jobs for mistakes that we couldn't control. Eventually Coles rejected a full pallet of tomatoes, around 90 boxes. This was a big deal at the time. Our manager had been extremely negligent."
In June 2011, a Queensland company was found guilty of neglect after 24-year-old German backpacker, Jessica Pera, had died on the second day of working on a tomato field.
The Brisbane Magistrates Court found the company had failed to provide water and sun protection equipment to its workers.
Fiona O'Sullivan is Principal Rural Inspector with Work Health and Safety Queensland.
She says the majority of workplaces inspected recently had good safety measures in place, but basic conditions such as access to drinking water can still be a problem.
"The Work Health and Safety legislation has some very specific requirements for people who have a business or undertaking employed labour. And these requirements include provision of information, instructions and training about a job which is easy for the worker to understand. And that's really one of the breakdowns we do have, because sometimes the people don't understand the English language very well. And also the people providing the information, and the instructions may not be really aware if the Holiday Maker has actually understood the information being provided. Obviously the people who are employing them, must ensure that they are provided with adequate drinking water and access to amenities such as toilets and hand-washing facilities."
Last October, a farming couple on King Island were ordered to pay almost $290,000 in compensation after a British backpacker was left with tetraplegia in a quad bike crash on their property.
Fiona O'Sullivan says other serious incidents she's aware of, involving fruit and vegetable workers, include finger amputations, and chemical exposure.
She encourages anyone who believes their working conditions are unsafe, to report them.
But Irish backpacker Jessica Riley says speaking up is not always easy, especially for those who have English as a second language.
"We are put under extreme situations, where health and safety goes out the window, some people are too afraid to say 'I'm not comfortable riding a quad, I'm not comfortable riding a horse without a helmet'. You just want to stay in the country, you kind of let people treat you the way that they treat you."
Jessica Riley says she went to police, after a farm owner repeatedly verbally abused her.
"And he was just so rude, one day he was putting his bed sheets on his bed and the bed sheets didn't match and he screamed at me: "You stupid f... foreign b..." I'm sorry. "Stupid f... foreign b... I'll never let another foreigner into my house."
Marco Zangari is a social worker with the Italian Australian community organisation, called Co.As.It.
He says adequate support services haven't followed the dramatic growth in the Working Holiday program.
"This thing [WHV], over the years probably got bigger and maybe a bit out of control. Now people are desperate to find a farm in order to do the three months you need to get the second WHV. And because of that, sometimes people tend to take advantage of that."
The Fair Work Ombudsman recently set up a Facebook page to provide information targeted at foreign employees who work in the harvest industry.
The strong advice to all young Working Holiday Makers is to ensure that they're not being forced to work in unsafe conditions - and that they're being paid correctly.