Every year thousands of backpackers from around the world travel to all corners of Australia. Often to places way off the traditional tourist trail, places most Australians won’t make it to in their lifetime.
To work for 88 days and earn a second year visa. Bonuses goals are making new friends and drinking several boxes of goon.
That doesn’t sound so bad right?
Unfortunately the farming industry hasn’t had many positive vibes over the years. Every backpacker, their friends, or a friend of a friend has experienced anything from being underpaid, unpaid wages, random scams, abuse and/or unfair treatment while working on farms in Australia.
Too often it dims peoples opinion of Australia after the 88 days are complete, if they make it that far. They should and could be 88 of the best days ever for all backpackers.
As a kiwi I don’t need the visa but I did get a look into the highs and lows of farm work in Bundaberg. Living and working with backpackers for nearly two months, I experienced what thousands of people do every year.
If you’ve got any questions, let me know in the comments or send me an email.
If you’re short on time, the majority of the ‘interesting’ reading is from 1.4 to 2.6.
- 1 Section 1: My Farm Work Experiences
- 1.1 Getting The Job In Bundaberg
- 1.2 Farm Job #1 – Manually Digging Sweet Potatoes
- 1.3 Farm Job #2: Tony Grima’s Sweet Potato Farm
- 1.4 Farm Job #3: Sam’s Cherry Tomatoes
- 1.5 Farm Job #4: Halt for Holt’s Spuds
- 1.6 Farm Job #5: Brendan Boon Sweet Potatoes
- 1.7 Farm Job #6: Pacific Gold Macadamia Nuts
- 1.8 TL;DR Version Of The 6 Work Experiences
- 2 Section 2: Digging Into The Rules & Regulations
- 3 Section 3: The Backpacker Tax
- 4 Section 4: Final Thoughts On Bundaberg
Section 1: My Farm Work Experiences
Getting The Job In Bundaberg
After getting back from Indonesia I was hanging out at my sisters house figuring out my next plan of attack. The tax year in Australia ends in June. If I could get work ASAP I’d have 6 – 7 weeks to earn wages below the 0% tax threshold.
Jumping around the backpacker job board, I found the job listing below.
Awesome! I could work long hours before June 30th, earn decent wages and have most of the tax returned.
I gave the number a call and things were quickly confirmed. I’d head to Bundaberg on Friday the 13th (bad omen?) of May to stay at a hostel and work on a tomato farm. Rent would be $210 dollars/week plus an additional $70 required up front for a deposit and a high-vis shirt.
This seemed like a crazy amount for rent. Most hostels charge less than this around Australia.
I’m pretty good with travelling on a budget so I figured with a solid work, sleep, work, sleep routine total expenses would be minimal.
I also have friends who worked in Bundaberg back in 2011 who saved a decent amount of cash. I figured I could to.
I researched tomato picking reviews in Australia. There wasn’t much in the way of positive things being said, but you don’t always get to hear the good stories. She’ll be right I thought.
Arriving on the Friday evening, I was checked in by the night manager, a fellow backpacker on call. When you pay $210/week, having no 24/7 reception is odd.
I didn’t work until Monday. Turns out I had to request to be put on the worksheet, despite agreeing Friday was my arrival date. Commonsense would mean readiness to work on Saturday? Not an ideal start.
Farm Job #1 – Manually Digging Sweet Potatoes
My first job was a one off day at a spud (potato) farm. Three of us worked our asses off for 7 hours, manually digging up potatoes. Total pay, $86.50…well under minimum wage. I didn’t think much of it, given it was my first day at work.
Fun fact: I haven’t been paid that money yet (update: still unpaid as of October 22nd).
Farm Job #2: Tony Grima’s Sweet Potato Farm
Even though I was new to The Grand, everyone said Tony wasn’t a nice person to work for. Always yelling and making girls feel awkward so much so a few had requested not to be put on his farm. Willing Workers, the labour hire company had discussed the issue with him before. The excuse for him not changing was something like ‘he was old and it’s hard to change his ways.’
Oh, and tracking start and finish times is a good idea. They would be recorded differently by Tony every now and then.
I worked here two days before I was not welcomed back. Tony fired me, despite proving myself as a good worker.
On the first day we were planting potato plants for $40/row. The first row took me 1.45 hours. That’s a decent hourly wage and I’d only get faster.
We then ran out of vines to plant so some of us went to cut more. We weren’t on hourly rates so this was in our best interests.
I was cutting for just under 15 minutes, no worries. At the end of the day, he didn’t wanna know about that 15 minutes of work. Between us we would have spent 90 – 120 minutes cutting vines. That’s two hours of unpaid work right there. There was no thank you or apology for not providing enough vines from Tony. He never yelled.
The second day was an early start, we arrived at 5.45am. After standing around for 20 minutes, we jumped on the back of the truck to start the day. As we were about to begin, we snapped the time. 6.09am.
Around 20 of us were cutting vines on an hourly rate. He started moving people to planting (piece work), the faster people continued to cut vines. Right around 11.45am, there was three of us left.
We moved over to planting. All was well and eventually the day was finished.
As we were about to sign off on our hours I saw the start time was marked down at 6.20am. Later than when we actually started. This is what people warned me of.
I mentioned our actual start time was 6.15am (at the latest) and would like the times changed.
5 minutes isn’t a lot but that’s nearly two hours of unpaid labour between us. At minimum wage that’s roughly $33.50 post tax (over $6,000/year)!
When I spoke up Tony wasn’t happy. When I said we have proof, he didn’t want to know about it and one of his infamous tirades negun.
Yelling about this and that, saying ‘there’s always one who can’t keep quiet’….’You aren’t coming back to this farm, I’ll make sure of it’ etc.
I kept it as civil as possible, just wanting a quick chat that wouldn’t take longer than 30 seconds.
When he jumped on his tractor the others said I should move just in case. Wow.
That was my last day on Tony Grima’s potato farm. The money was decent, but his behaviour was horrendous.
A bunch of the workers said it was good that I questioned Tony. But no one else spoke up, they need their 88 days.
Farm Job #3: Sam’s Cherry Tomatoes
Remember earlier? I was supposed to be a tomato farmer!
Word in the
street hostel was Sam’s Cherry Tomato Farm was a nightmare. You wake up at a silly hour, drive 45 minutes to pick tomatoes while being yelled out and earn less than $10/hour.
I put my name down for a day of cherry tomatoes for a couple reasons.
1. To see first hand what the deal was.
2. It was what I signed up for in Brisbane.
Arriving on the farm, everything was a bit chaotic. 70+ people were there ready to pick cherry tomatoes for the day.
30 minutes later we got our buckets and finally set to work. I picked 2.5 buckets, not bad. At $6/bucket, 15 dollars was a good start. I’d only get faster.
What was everyone talking about?
After another hour or so we were directed to a different section of the farm. The walk took 10 – 15 minutes to get there, a long time om piece rates.
This new section we were picking roma tomatoes. Ouch! The going was slow and the next bucket took me nearly an hour to pick.
5 hours later the working day was finished. I picked 7⅞ buckets (I made sure to count). Despite providing bank accounts etc. we would receive our money in an envelope in the next week or two. You can see mine below!
Turns out for the first hour I received less than $13. And for the five hours of work I did, earned less than $8/hour! The day before they had earned $6/bucket. Silly me assuming we were getting paid the same rate.
While most worked hard, no one I spoke to made close to $20/hour.
Farm Job #4: Halt for Holt’s Spuds
After Tony Grima sacked me, I was woken up a few days later to give Holt’s, a large sweet potato company, a hand for the day.
I was straight into cutting vines before being asked to help with digging the potatoes on the machine. Apparently someone had walked off the job. Awesome! If I made a good impression I could be kept on.
With no gloves, picking up the potatoes rolling up the conveyor belt wasn’t easy. I’d go to grab handfuls of spuds but as they bounce around my nails would end up digging into them. The feeling of potato right up under your nails is like ripping the skin next to your fingernail. It hurts.
I’d made a good enough impression and was kept on. With 25-40 hours a week of hourly paid work it was good to know I’d save some money each week.
The work wasn’t always easy. We were mostly digging with some planting, manual digging and weeding as well. It was cool, I had a routine and the fellas on the truck were choice.
Two of the three full time workers were great. The third, Billy seemed harmless until he was left to supervise us alone weeding one day.
Billy doesn’t supervise often. I see why. While weeding, he was essentially bullying us. Making sure we knew we’d stuffed up, calling us blind/useless all while giving us mixed instructions. The theory was to ignore him and carry on as the mixed messages were crazy. It was like having a crazy partner, whatever you say is the wrong thing so you say nothing.
***fast forward a couple weeks later***
The previous week was saying I was slow etc but had said the same to everyone else. Is he joking or not? I ignored him for the most part but did reply a couple times.
It was a Monday and all was well. I had a small cold with boogers blocking the nose so I kept quiet most of the day. I’m not a big talker when more than a few people are around anyway.
We’d a good day, despite the wet soil we set a good pace. Plenty of spuds fall off the back of the conveyor belt, we know this happens when the dirt is wet. Anyway we would all take turns moving one place along the belt after each row to ensure no one gets the raw end of the stick.
With a couple of minutes left in the day I stood at the last spot on the belt talking to the guy next to me. At the end of the belt there’s less potatoes to grab but you still miss some as you can’t see them under the wet dirt. That’s cool though, us backpackers had a good rhythm and understanding.
Anyway, Billy spoke up.
”Oi, Welly stop talking and keep digging.”
Welly was the name he’d decided to call me.
This wasn’t on. If it had been anyone else I’m 94% sure he would have said nothing. I decided to say something. It was along the lines of:
”I am. Just having a chat with X. We’ve been going good all day. There’s no need to say something silly when we’ve got two minutes to go.”
We finished the day and got going. Another day, another dollar and for the rest another day closer to the second year visa.
Later on that night I wasn’t on the worksheet. What?
It was bamboozling, Everyone else’s name was there plus a new name. I was over on the waiting list.
Asking lads. “Yo, do you know what’s up?” No one knew why I was removed.
Bronwyn was the person to contact at Willing Workers. Hoping it was a harmless mistake I sent a message. The response was PC as it gets. You are no longer required on the farm.
I followed up wanting a genuine reason. When she called back I got the same message. They no longer require you, blah blah blah. They don’t have to give a reason which is frustrating.
I’m 99% sure what happened though. Billy had said something to get me off the worksheet.
This was Billy who’d blatantly bullied us when supervising us. Billy who also said to me one:
‘Oi Welly, are you Muslim? Prove you’re not a terrorist and bring bacon to work tomorrow’.
I brushed it off at the time, not want to get in a conversation like this.
The following day, “Welly, did you bring bacon or are you a terrorist”.
I replied with something along the lines of ‘guess that makes me a terrorist’.
For the record, I don’t eat bacon. Just a silly vegan over here.
Despite this, I would’ve gone back to work for Holt’s if given the opportunity.
I’d fallen into the backpacker farm work struggle. You’ll do anything to keep a job.
They were a good company to work for, they make you work hard and you end up covered in dirt and dust but that’s good honest hard work. It only takes one bad egg to ruin it though. It would be so much easier if they just talked to backpackers rather than having us ‘let go’ behind our backs.
Farm Job #5: Brendan Boon Sweet Potatoes
After not getting any work for 14 days, I started at Brendan Boon’s Potato Farm. Known as the hardest work place that Willing Workers/The Grand were supplying workers too.
I wasn’t asked if I was willing to work on that farm, which would have been nice. I probably would have said yes, knowing many had quit on the first day due to the difficulty.
I made it through the day, but really struggled on lifting the bins of spuds. I’m a short with minimal muscle so it was no surprise to me. The other backpackers covered my ass a bit.
Anyway, I was fired when my name wasn’t on the worksheet that night. Though it was obvious why, being told in person would’ve been nicer.
Farm Job #6: Pacific Gold Macadamia Nuts
10 days later I finally got onto the Pacific Gold Macadamias work list. The wholly grail for Bundaberg backpackers. An hourly paid where you didn’t end up covered in filth with reasonably consistent hours.
My five days there were fun but with such little work in the weeks prior I’d made plans to move on from Bundy.
Random Fact: Macadamia nuts are native to Australia.
TL;DR Version Of The 6 Work Experiences
- Accepted a job for tomato picking in Bundaberg.
- Based out of The Grand Hostel.
- Worked on four potato farms, a tomato farm and a macadamia factory.
- Fired three times. Two times were a joke.
- Was called a terrorist.
- Earned less than $10/hour on the tomato farm
- Willing Workers Stops Providing Workers To Cherry Tomato Farms – November 14th, 2007
- “We get screamed at all day like we are animals” – March 10th, 2010
- Even The Hostel Cleaners Were Skeptical – March 13th, 2010
- Workers Sacked After Pleading For Water – March 13th, 2010
- Accusations Of Abuse/Unpaid Wages From Max Tosun – March 15th, 2010
- Allegations Of Abuse – May 7th, 2015
- 10.3 & 10.4 – part time vs. casual employment. I thought we were casual workers but Willing Workers has a separate agreement (never saw this in the end).
- 14.1 – minimum wage.
- 15 – pieceworkers. 15.7, always have your piece rate written down before you start the day. 15.9, the loophole which allows the industry to get away with so much.
- 17, 22, 23 & 24 – allowances, ordinary hours of work and rostering, breaks and overtime
- Perfect location in centre of town
- Bathroom facilities were cleaned regularly
- Large common room
- No kitchen supplies
- The internet wasn’t great
- $210/week, regardless of number of beds in your dorm
- No alcohol allowed in hostel
- No fixed reception hours…and a lack of direct answers
- Not very secure (I never had a key card for my ~eight weeks)
Section 2: Digging Into The Rules & Regulations
What’s Fair And Not Fair?
During my period of little work after getting sacked from Holt’s I started looking into wage rates and farm worker rights in Australia.
With plenty of conflicting rumours in the hostel I wanted look into things myself.
It didn’t take long to find out there had been issues with fruit picking in Bundaberg previously.
They’re all Bundaberg related pieces above.
The most pressing issue for me was Sam’s Cherry Tomatoes. I was having a look at different workers rights when I found the requirements for payment on piece rates.
According to the horticulture award the payments work like this:
A competent fruit picker should be receiving well over over $24/hour.
Some really good pickers could expect upwards of $30+/hour. Not everyone is going to be competent but those who were definitely didn’t 50% slower than what you need to be to earn ‘a competent wage’.
Based on the pay I received from my tomato picking, you’d need fill over 5 buckets/hour to reach minimum wage. Crazy talk.
I decided to ask the hostel about the pay rates. They distanced themselves from Sam’s right away but did give me his email address to reach out to him. When I sore his last name, alarm bells went off. I recognized ‘Tosun’ from the links above.
Max Tosun had previous incidents with backpackers on tomato farms. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out they’re related in some way.
Sam, now running the tomato farms has definitely adopted Max’s (who looks to be living in Melbourne now) leadership style.
I sent an email to Sam with the Willing Workers owner, Dave, cc’ed in asking what the deal was with the pay rate.
I had a chat with Dave the next day in person in an unexpected visit. He had good answers for everything I asked but ultimately nothing was going to change.
Sam never responded despite numerous follow up emails.
Given the drama with the Tosun name in the past, I’m surprised labour hire companies went back to supplying workers here. And continued to do so knowing the poor money backpackers were getting paid.
Ultimately the flaws in the industry get overlooked by most as it comes down to the 88 days trap.
The 88 Days Trap – Getting Your Visa Via Any Means Possible
When I lived in Melbourne a few years ago, I met some backpackers who were doing farm work. It all seemed pretty easy. They left for three months, had fun, saved cash and were ready to apply for their second year visa. A great deal really.
What I know now is, the supply of farm workers is massive. Some backpackers hit gold (not literally).
That’s best case scenario above and you’ll often be lonely, living in the middle of nowhere.
Every backpacker who decides to take on farm work for their 2nd year visa has a different way of achieving 88 days.
When people end up at a working hostel, they’ll take work they’re given. Even if that means taking horrid treatment from farmers while working for dismal wages that barely cover rent let alone food and other essentials. Don’t worry though, there’s always savings to dip into for a box of goon!
Taking action and risk getting fired isn’t worth it. The whole ordeal of finding a regular job (especially when you don’t have a car) isn’t easy which is why so many go to working hostels in the first place.
People knew the pay for cherry tomatoes was a joke, they went to get the days signed off. Most would work for free if a day was signed off!
There’s no incentive to report things to the ombudsman. If you report someone, they might get shutdown which means less work. Thus becoming harder to reach the magical 88 days. A real catch 22 situation.
Bundaberg has no ombudsman in the wider region. When I gave the Fair Work Ombudsman a call, everything was ‘please fill out these forms’ etc. then we MAY take a look into the case.
I didn’t follow through with this. You need many complaints to get any action taken and I didn’t want to take jobs away from fellow backpackers!
There’s no easy solution. As Julian Ledge, the Youth Hostels Australia chief said about labour hire companies ripping off backpackers, its been going on for “as long as he could remember”.
I understand we are just numbers on a spreadsheet to the farms. Given the fact farmers choose to hire backpackers over locals can be taken various ways. I don’t want to speculate but surely one is the way they can treat backpackers without repercussion.
Right now farmers are sacking people with no explanation and getting a new person the following day. Why not have a quick chat and let people know if they’re not on the right track? Simple human skills are all that’s required, with a touch of empathy.
One of the big issues with the whole system is around the labour hire companies who are contracted by the farms to supply workers. These labour hire companies work closely with certain hostels for labour supply, often too close. If you leave the hostel the labour hire company will also leave you.
While some are totally above the books, there are plenty who are regularly over working and underpaying workers.
The links I mentioned above were all Bundaberg related but as recently as June 2016 details were released of a labour contractor underpaying 85 workers.
It’s also making its way into politics with Labour planning to license all labour hire companies if elected.
The industry needs to be sorted out.
Yet goes back to the 88 days, people will do anything for a job and rarely kick up a fuss!
Additionally, with living costs so high, some Australian residents work because money is money and they can get by on tiny wages. They won’t complain otherwise there’s no job for them. Sometimes they aren’t aware of their rights.
I found the whole thing confusing too. It was hard to know who we were working for. If we were working for Willing Workers we were on part time wages. Yet if we were on macadamia nuts or Brendan Boon’s you were hired by those companies so would get paid casual rates.
At the hostel, with any queries, the line between which staff was working for Willing Workers and The Grand (hostel) was bamboozling.
What Are Your Rights As A Farm Worker In Australia?
The key regulations to be aware of:
Tips For Those Working On Farms In Australia
Tip 1: Track Your Hours. And verify them with each payslip.
Tip 2: Work Hard On Hourly. If you show you are a good worker, you’ll be kept on and given the better jobs.
Tip 3: Read reviews. It turns out those who did write reviews about cherry tomato picking were right.
Tip 4: Know your rights. See above, and stick up for yourself.
Tip 5: Understand who is paying you. It’s confusing, is it the hostel, the labour hire company or the people you actually work with?
Tip 6: Apply for jobs fast. There are 1000’s around Aussie looking for farm work, the early bird gets the worm.
Tip 7:Know what rate you’re being paid. And get it in writing.
Tip 8: Keep on their toes about payments. I’m still battling to get paid from work on May 16th.
Other’s Getting Sacked
I wasn’t the only one to get sacked 🙂
It was a common occurrence. Some for legitimate reasons,others are left soul searching when their name wasn’t is removed from the work list. Some are sacked part way through the day, stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Remember, don’t expect the labour-hire company or hostel to go in to bat for you.
Section 3: The Backpacker Tax
What It Could Mean For Backpackers
When I arrived in Bundaberg the Aussie Backpacker Tax debate was at its peak. My buddy Dave was interviewed on AFR to discuss the situation having booked flights out of Australia based on the tax coming in on July 1st 2016.
The situation is now being reviewed with no changes until January 2017 at the earliest. I can see why locations such as Bundaberg are worried.
At the moment, people on Working Holiday Visa’s are taxed ~13%. Most of which they’ll get back at the end of the tax year. The proposed tax is 32% (no minimum threshold). That’s a shit load of money taken away from backpackers, many who are figuring out how to travel cheap as it is.
Backpackers will do anything to stay for their 88 days of farm work but I think 32% would prevent many from coming to Australia in the first place. Other options like New Zealand and Canada become more enticing.
If they do decide to get the working visa there’s less incentive to stay an extra year. It ‘ll keep 1000’s of backpackers out of towns like Bundaberg and Mildura. They rely on backpackers to get their produce on shop shelves around the country. See where that could lead?
Section 4: Final Thoughts On Bundaberg
Should You Stay At A Working Hostel?
If possible, find work directly with an employer (farm) instead. This won’t be so easy if you don’t have a car but with some Google and Facebook skills you’ll find plenty of people to get in touch with.
Working Hostel Definition: Unlike normal hostels in Australia, working hostel provide accommodation, fruit picking jobs and in the most cases transport to and from the work. This makes working hostels a fantastic place for travelers looking for a harvest or fruit picking job. If you are willing to stay in a working hostel then it’s expected that you are willing to work (source).
As a backpacker, you’ve probably stayed in various hostels and enjoyed meeting people regardless of the hostel quality. The same goes with working hostels. It’s up to you and what your comfort levels are.
…and you may have no better option.
It would appear the Fair Work Ombudsman and the like are not going to overhaul the industry any time soon. Be careful what you get yourself into!
Mini The Grand Mid-Point Hostel Review
My Highlights From Working On Farms In Australia
Meeting people. Most of the people at the hostel were English, French, Italian and German. Most people are chill and will look to cross paths in the future.
Exploring more of Australia. Bundaberg got a bit chilly but I enjoyed the town and there’s actually plenty of things to do in the Bundaberg region.
Savings. LOL, didn’t manage to save any money whatsoever. Thanks to working just 1 out of 20 days at one point in July.
I’d say my fruit picking days in Australia are well and truly over, I’ll stick to wineries.