At 1am, Katherine Biggs awakes, her breath forming steam in the unheated animal shed that is her home. With no hot water, she skips a shower and gets ready to make the three-hour drive to Brisbane to sell vegetables at a farmer’s market. Three times a week, Kat goes through the same routine in order to complete her rural work hours to renew her working holiday visa in Australia.
A three-month stint working on a vegetable farm in Stanthorpe in rural Queensland was supposed to be an unforgettable Australian experience.
But for Kat, it was an experience she would rather forget.
All year round, thousands of tourists in Australia on working holiday visas flock to farms across the country in search of work. Many are promised jobs on farms with reasonable pay and decent accommodation.
However, many find themselves living in sub-standard conditions and working long hours doing hard labour for little money in return: all for the privilege of remaining in Australia for another year.
To renew a working holiday visa, travellers must complete 88 days of specified work in a regional or rural area, according to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship website. The purpose of rural work is not to provide tourists with a taste of true Australian country life, but to fill the severe lack of seasonal workers in Australia, which according to the National Farmers Federation, is costing fruit and vegetable growers millions of dollars a year in rotting produce.
But many workers are not treated fairly and are being used and abused by businesses. Kat said she feels she was taken advantage of at the vegetable farm at Stanthorpe.
“The family I volunteered for decided to put me up in this hideous old shed, which was barely standing,” she said. “There was no heating or hot water in the shed, which got pretty unbearable during the day as we were living in the mountains and the temperature would get down to minus 5 degrees. You could see your own breath in front of you.”
Robert Cameron from Harvest Line said a growing number of contractors out there were doing the wrong thing.
“They are certainly underpaying workers, promising a lot of things and not delivering. Now that’s a problem that the growers need to address, because at the end of the day, they’re the ones who are going to miss out and are not going to be able to get workers, because people will stop, certainly backpackers will stop, coming to Australia if they keep being ripped off.”
But despite awareness of poor farm conditions, nothing is being done to improve the situation. In 2010, former Minister for Immigration Chris Evans expressed his concern about making sure those on working holidays were paid appropriate award rates and were not exploited.
“I do think we’ve seen instances of labour hire companies acting inappropriately and not necessarily meeting fair wages and conditions, and I’m very determined to try and help stamp that out,” he said.
Yet, no regulations have been enforced to make sure these businesses do the right thing and today they are still getting away with shocking conditions.
Horror stories of farm experiences have circulated amongst the backpacker community via online blogs and forums, giving farm work a bad reputation. Now many tourists have wisened up to the immigration system and are seeking alternatives to renew their visas in Australia.
Towards the end of the first year of her working visa, Dana Reagan (not her real name) began looking for ways to renew her visa without having to leave her new life in Bondi. After a quick search online, she found someone offering documents from their farm work for $100.
“When I saw the offer online I thought it was worth a shot, so I paid for the documents and within a week I received them in the mail,” she said.
“All I had to do to renew my visa was enter the details I received in an online form, submit it and wait. It can take up to two weeks for the visa application to go through but mine was approved later that night. It was that easy”.
Others go to more drastic measures to ensure they stay in Australia. Ron Dailey (not his real name) had good intentions, making the move from Sydney to Griffith to complete his farm work on an orange farm. But things didn’t work out quite as planned.
“I went to the farm with just over three months left on my visa,” Ron said. “I was there for two weeks waiting for the farm to process my documents, but they took too long and I ran out of time.”
Ron says he was forced to look at other options.
“I wasn’t ready to leave Australia,“ he said. “I returned to Sydney and discussed things with my Australian girlfriend and we decided, what the hell, let’s just get married.”
Within five weeks, Ron, 20, and his girlfriend Mary were married at a Sydney registry office, and for just $400 Josh was guaranteed permanent residency in Australia.
For those looking for an option with less commitment, a skilled worker 457 visa is a safe bet. As part of the national migration program, a worker must be sponsored by a business in Australia to fill a nominated skilled position that cannot be filled locally, according to the Department of Immigration website.
After her first year in Australia, Jenny Hilliard applied for a 457 visa.
“I figured there was no point in doing farm work as it would only get me an extra year,” Jenny explained. “But I wanted to stay here long term, so I asked my workplace if they would consider sponsoring me. Luckily, they were happy to.”
However, the 457 visa has a number of restrictions and requirements. The visa is confined only to highly skilled workers who have the training and experience necessary for the job, and who meet a comprehensive list of health and character requirements.
Jenny warns it wasn’t easy to obtain the visa.
“In order to stay, I had to become a manager at my workplace, which took about six weeks of full time training,” she said. “And now I work long hours, about 50 hours or more a week. I don’t have time to eat or sleep properly. It’s pretty intense, but worth it to stay in Australia”.
Despite the effort, the benefits of a 457 visa are great. It allows workers to stay in Australia for up to four years, bring their family with them and travel in and out of Australia as often as they want. Although this visa is not an option available to all travellers, for those with university education and experience, it is the perfect solution.
With all these alternatives it seems no longer necessary for tourists to undergo the horrors of farm work to stay in Australia. Kat, now on a skilled worker visa, wishes she knew about this option before she did her farm work.
“If I had known I could have stayed in Australia through sponsorship, I would have never done farm work,” she says. “I will never forget what I went through.”