Unemployed Australians across the country are being rejected from farm work at the same time as the government launches an ad campaign to entice New Zealand backpackers to come and pick our crops.
The government is so desperate to get boots on the ground before this year’s harvest goes to waste that it’s trying to entice backpackers from across the ditch with a slick advertising campaign saying they can ‘pick their way to paradise’.
But there is no assurance they will be paid properly – or even make minimum wage.
Many of the jobs that are being promoted are offering piece rates, where the employer is paid by how many pieces they pick, and they do not receive a guaranteed minimum hourly or weekly rate.
But while the government sends a desperate plea overseas, many Australians say they are being knocked back from the same work that’s being advertised.
Dan Osca, 23, is fit and healthy. After being underpaid in a construction job earlier this year, he headed to Bundaberg to start picking fruit.
He applied for eight jobs but as soon as the farmers realised he was Australian he got turned away.
“They said they wanted workers but they weren’t willing to put on Australians,” he said.
“They say you can start, but when they realise you are an Australian they won’t employ you. Except they say they’re seeking workers?”
One farm wanted to charge him $260 to stay in shared accommodation and an extra $60 for a house key.
“They also wanted me to pay $110 for fuel in their van to go to and from the site, that’s just going from the house to the field,” he told The New Daily.
“You’re paying around 410 bucks a week and some weeks you might only make $300 so you’re out of pocket.”
Ozi Abla, 50, has been applying for farm jobs for months – and hasn’t been able to land one.
“I applied through Agrilabour, I had a missed call from them so I kept calling and sent messages, they didn’t reply,” she said.
“I applied mango picking, veggie picking jobs in November, didn’t have any reply. I also applied for one on Gumtree, they didn’t reply either. “
She might be older than the normal backpacker but is used to physical work.
“I’m very very fit, I’m a Zumba instructor so I’m very active but they might be looking at my age and think, ‘No’,” she said.
Another woman, who lives in South Australia and did not want to named, said she had applied for almost “40 farm jobs” and heard nothing back.
“I’m over it. I’m nearly homeless,” she said.
The 47-year-old, who showed how to fit she was by sharing a photo of her bending over backwards, said she had grown up on farms and was a hard worker.
“They can employ family for free or backpackers cheaper, plus (I’m a) girl,” she said.
“I’m frustrated, as I’m falling through cracks.”
Although there are fit and healthy Australians getting knocked back from farm work, the government has ploughed ahead with its campaign to bring in backpackers.
Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham justified the campaign by saying growers were struggling to find workers – an anecdotal claim often used by the government that does not look at why many Australians can’t find work in the horticulture sector.
Mr Birmingham did not wish to speak to The New Daily, with his media spokesperson directing us to previous interviews.
“This campaign aims to encourage young Kiwis to take a working holiday in Australia this summer, which will not only provide a tourism boost but also help fill some of the current workforce shortages that some businesses are facing, particularly those across regional areas or in our popular tourism destinations,” he said in a press release.
“We want young New Zealanders to cross the ditch, have a cracking time exploring our incredible country, earn some cash, spend that cash, and support our farmers or tourism operators at the same time.”
The industry has come under fire recently for the severe exploitation of pickers, some who are trafficked into the country, forced to live in squalor and paid less than $8 an hour.
Backpackers have told The New Daily they’ve been forced into expensive accommodation and abused.
Sam Haughton, 26, picked strawberries in Caboolture for three months this year.
The UK backpacker was paid a piece rate that changed every week.
“Pay was between $0.75-1.60 per kg of strawberries you picked. It changed every week, “ he said.
“When I started I was on $200 per week if I was lucky, but by the time I finished in peak season working as fast as possible, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, I was on closer to $800-900 dollars.”
Mr Haughton said they would work for a month before getting a day off.
“Farm work is a weird one as you make so many good friends and have a pretty good laugh doing it but only cos you’re all under such exploitative conditions.”
National secretary of the Australian Workers Union Daniel Walton said the government was “desperate to find any solution that’s not paying people fairly”.
“The federal government have said, ‘Australians are lazy, they’re afraid of doing hard work’, but Australians are telling us they’re trying to get a start and are being shunned.”
Instead of making meaningful changes to the industry to ensure people were paid properly and regional Australians were given opportunities, the government was committing itself to cheap, temporary labour, he said.
“We need a royal commission into this industry to absolutely put a spotlight on every nasty nook and cranny,” Mr Walton added.
“And we need to start paying proper wages and conditions.”