Union organisation for backpackers!

Submitted by martin on 28 November, 2010 - 8:05 Author: Hannah Thompson

Australia makes up for its relatively liberal immigration laws in several ways.

One is a contempt for the human rights of asylum seekers, resulting in overcrowded detention centres and scapegoating of 'boat people' in its general elections.

Another is designing its visa system so as to ensure an endless supply of cheap labour from backpackers wishing to stay in the country an extra year.

Working Holiday visas are easily accessible for Europeans, Koreans and Japanese; healthy 18-30 year-olds can work for up to six months under one employer and come and go as they please for twelve months for a £200 fee. This makes it very easy for backpackers to earn a little to support their travels but ensures they are kept in or under the minimum wage bracket – few employers will knowingly pay more for an employee they will lose in six months.

Most backpackers find they want to extend their visa, which requires another £200 and eighty-eight days 'specified work in a regional area'; previously called 'seasonal labour'. That's three months in an industry away from the tourist hot-spots in agriculture, fishing or mining industries; in practice, for the majority of backpackers, it means fruit picking or fruit packing.

I worked on Eatough tomato farm in Bowen, Queensland, for a month. During that time I met one Australian picker out of a two-hundred-strong constantly rotating labour force. He told me that the local Aussies took mining jobs rather than picking for a variety of reasons: family tradition, better pay and conditions, better treatment from their bosses and – due to the relative permanency of the position – a history of consistent union organisation.

Fruit pickers badly need the organisational strength of union solidarity. As a temporary and inexhaustible workforce backpackers are easily replaced, divided and exploited by employers, supervisors and landlords.

Because backpackers aren't working for the money, but the legal entitlement to remain in the country, they will move on when their three months are up and keep their heads down rather than organise and risk losing the job they need to extend their stay. Though legally entitled to the minimum wage and fair reasons for dismissal, making a wage claim creates the risk that their employer or hostel-owner will not fill out the documentation required to prove they've completed their eighty-eight days.

The picking itself is hard work, but on average a picker could earn $100 a day for twelve hours straight, if they were on a fast team; effectively half the minimum wage ($18 an hour before tax). Legally, contract work should earn you at least 15% over minimum wage a week to be taxed, but the contactors keep a percentage as 'tax' anyway. Contract work doesn't pay for hard work; it's designed to get high levels of productivity out of hundreds of workers for as little expense as possible to the farmer.

My early attempts at fruit-picker organisation were meetings with small groups or individuals around pushing for legal pay with the FairWork Ombudsman. Over the phone (the office was based in Brisbane, a day's drive away) FairWork urged the more articulate speakers to make individual wage claims, but nothing could be done collectively, and nothing was guaranteed to work.

The workers were frightened of losing their jobs and visas, and it didn't seem worth it for a few hundred dollars – the farmers, visa requirements and hostels would continue business in the same way.

I've mentioned contractors, but when you think of a contractor you usually picture a recruitment agency doing the enrolment paperwork, advertising, hiring and firing. In farming towns, the hostel owners take on this role, working as landlord, contractor and second employer. The hostels in the local towns took tenants almost exclusively as workers from the local farms, making agreements with a particular farm or group of farms and preventing workers negotiating with the terms of employment directly.

Landlords in picking towns are effectively recruitment contractors without legal contracts, and usually employ workers over the phone without giving them any knowledge of the farmer-hostel agreements. Farming work advertisements would refer to the landlord, not the farmer, as the contact.

Landlords in farming towns can afford to be dishonest about job availability. All demand some kind of deposit in advance and where backpackers can't afford it, landlords withhold passports. To get payment in advance owners would offer jobs where none existed, then after the deposit was paid tell the worker they may be waiting, unemployed, in the hostel for weeks.

The rents are often extortionate in themselves, and conditions appalling. Hostels in Proserpine are reported to demand six weeks' rent in advance at $100 a week for filthy, cold showers, kitchens with no cooking equipment, plates or cutlery, and bed-bug-ridden cramped rooms.

When your landlord is also effectively your boss, your life stops being your own. Aussie Nomads Bowen was the largest hostel in town, supplying workers to over twenty farms.

The bosses were invited to make deals with the landlord in the expensive bar next to our kitchens, keeping us up late at night; but if we overslept or took a sick day we would have the landlord hammering on our doors, or the intercoms in our dorms, at dawn to get us up.

Occasionally the boss would change his mind about a day off and we'd be given fifteen minutes notice to get to work or lose the job. Our deposits were used to threaten us as well as keep us in the job and the hostel.

Hostel rates were extortionate: $140 a week rent and $60 transport for a fifteen minute journey to and from work on a temperamental school bus, guaranteed thirty passengers per bus per day and often late picking us up at the end of it. The transport and fees were compulsory; if you decided to take your own transport you risked losing your job.

Everyone at some point contemplated boycotting the buses, but as soon as one worker negotiated their way out of the deal the farmers and landlords would crack down on any other requests and threaten jobs.

A wave of workers would leave in contempt, find a better job or resign their deposit and quit without notice. No one ever stayed long enough in the job to organise anything effective, and that is part of the effectiveness of employing backpackers.

Overcoming divisions and misgivings in a workforce such as fruit-picking backpackers required a long-term commitment beyond the capabilities of a few angry workers.

The workforce spoke a huge variety of languages and had different expectations of what 'exploitation' meant. The British, French, German and Irish were most likely to complain about pay and conditions and had good enough spoken English to negotiate directly with bosses or FairWork; but many of the Koreans and Japanese often didn't have the confidence with English to understand their bosses or landlords and mostly kept their heads down to reap the benefits of being the fastest pickers.

The pay, though sometimes not enough to pay rent, was better than what some were earning for similar jobs in Estonia, Poland and Russia, and the hostel conditions worth putting up with rather than returning home.

Mistrust and competitiveness was also created by the nature of the contract work which pitched teams of pickers against each other for the best patches, and pickers in each team for the fastest row. A workforce which rotated constantly as each wave of pickers left, was sacked, thrown out, or left to find slightly better jobs, made attempts at organisation extremely difficult without outside help and resources.

The Australian Workers' Union organiser from Proserpine gave me a similar argument when I asked him for assistance.

On top of that, the AWU needed members paying long-term annual subs, and what broke backpacker would be persuaded to a pay a year's subs for three months of effective representation?

Proserpine AWU showed the same contempt for backpackers as the farmers and supervisors, who patronised and harassed women, slow pickers and anyone who couldn't immediately understand their instructions as they bellowed them at us. Foreigners, in their view, didn't need or deserve representation by an Australian union.

Fruit pickers have many very good reasons to fight their exploitation in Australia, and we must do it ourselves. To tackle the exploitation that the Australian government permits, charging us 'rent' for our presence in this country that depends on us to maintain its agricultural and tourist industries, we would need the unity and confidence that comes with collective class organisation.