Please note this article contains references to sexual harassment and assault
Elle arrived in Australia from Argentina low on cash, so her first priority was to get a job. She put in applications everywhere but got a speedy reply from a cattle farm in Bundaberg, where a disabled farmer named Robert* needed help running errands. Nothing too complicated, he assured her, but then Elle arrived to discover she was expected to become Robert’s full-time carer.
“I didn't know how difficult, both physically and mentally, the job would be and how many hours I would be doing,” Elle said, explaining that Robert’s wife was busy most of the day, and another advertised caretaker position was never filled. “Taking care of a person like that, for me it requires some sort of special interest and devotion. It's definitely not for everyone.”
After two days, Elle handed in her notice. She agreed to stay for a further week, giving Robert some time to replace her, only for him to get increasingly creepy. What began as fairly innocuous comments about her “beauty” soon escalated into such questions as “do you touch yourself?” and “would you ever have sex with a man in a wheelchair?”
One day Robert told Elle that trying to find her replacement made him “stressed,” and so he needed a hug. When she obliged, he pulled her in for a kiss on the cheek.
In total, Elle stayed nine days before she left. “I had to borrow money from my dad,” she said. “A friend offered to pick me up from the farm earlier, but I said no because I was scared that if I left I wouldn’t be able to find another job, or they would call immigration or something like that.”
Elle’s experience with Robert was unpleasant, but sadly commonplace. For migrants from 42 countries including the UK, Germany, Canada, Taiwan, and China, getting a year-long Working Holiday Visa 417 or 462 is relatively easy. You simply apply, pay $420, and then get a year to travel Australia while working. But those looking to extend their stay a further year are required to complete 88 days of farm or factory work. Usually this work involves unskilled farm labour, such as fruit picking, which takes visa applicants from the major cities and places them in rural communities around the country.
This system has long been shadowed by reports of harassment, exploitation, and in some cases, death. In February, South Australian pig farmer Gene Charles Bristow was sentenced to 18 years in prison for kidnapping and raping a 26-year-old Belgian backpacker in a disused pig shed. Two years earlier, a Mildura grape grower pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a Dutch backpacker. A Canadian backpacker told Australian Story the same man had assaulted her, but police chose not to press charges at the time.
Like Elle, many backpackers feel like they can’t report exploitative or abusive working conditions in case they jeopardise their chances of securing a second year visa. In fact, Fairwork Australia found some 59 percent of farmworkers admit they’re unlikely to report abuse incase an employer prevents them from securing a visa extension.
Of course, all Australian farmers aren’t evil. But the largely under-regulated system creates a very asymmetric power balance between farm workers and employers.
So-called working hostels are another part of the problem. These hostels have sprung up in recent years as 417 and 462 visas have become more popular. Such places offer backpackers accommodation and assistance finding farm work, in return for notoriously high rent in shared dorm rooms, often with up to 20 people and basic shared facilities. And simply paying for a bed in a working hostel doesn’t guarantee a job. Instead, residents are placed on waiting lists, which can leave backpackers in limbo for weeks. If they move to another hostel, they know they’ll join the bottom of another waiting list.
British backpacker Bee Cullen knows the financial sting of working hostels only too well. She and her girlfriend worked on 10 farms throughout Mildura and Bundaberg. She was shocked to hear one farmer refer to female staff as “sluts” and make derogatory comments about another colleague’s weight. “She was mysteriously fired when she called him out for being appropriate,” Bee explained. Then, on discovering the two women were a couple, another boss started asking weird questions about which sex positions they liked most. “This may seem harmless but when he is our ride to and from the farm and the service is rarely good in these locations, it becomes a little scary,” Bee said.
Despite feeling uncomfortable, Bee was too broke to quit. The young couple borrowed a collective $10,000 from Bee’s family to pay for bonds, rent and living costs during their allocated 88 days. “I felt trapped every day,” Bee says. “My family helped us out a lot. We lived off cheap noodles and $1 packs of biscuits.”
In most cases, farms employing 417 and 462 visa holders are pretty small operations. There are no HR departments to deal with complaints of sexual harassment, and even when backpackers complain to hostel management, little gets done.
British backpacker Katherine Stoner says she spent weeks tolerating her boss’ unwanted sexual comments. “The final straw for us both was when he suggested we work naked for him, and then complained when we came back to see we both weren’t naked,” Katherine said. “We told our hostel manager that we wouldn’t work for him again and explained what happened. He didn’t seem too shocked or fussed.”
In recent years, the Australian government has made a number of changes to the working holiday visa schemes, but none have examined the safety of the migrant workforce. Over 32,800 backpackers completed their required rural work in 2017-2018, which is a huge number of young people putting themselves at risk in isolated places.
One of the strongest voices for change is Rosie Ayliffe, mother of murdered 21-year-old Mia Ayliffe-Chung, who was stabbed to death by a fellow backpacker suffering a schizophrenic episode. Today, Ayliffe is campaigning for such reforms as better health and safety training on farms, as well as a crackdown on labour hire companies. Her petition for better regulation has received over 6,800 signatures but the Australian government is yet to act on her advice. According to Ayliffe, the government have “not even acknowledged” her efforts.
After quitting her job on the peach farm, Katherine Stoner made a documentary film examining how young migrant workers are exploited on Australian farms. As Katherine summarises: as long as demands for better safety, treatment and regulation of rural work are ignored, women’s safety continues to be at risk.
“In many situations, women find themselves alone without anyone else around, and that’s an easy situation for any farmer to take advantage of,” she said via email. “The government really needs to be held more accountable for letting this kind of thing happen. It is ultimately up to the government—this kind of thing should not be happening in a first world country.”
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*Names has been changed