Sunday, April 4, 2010
Slim pickings for backpackers in outback Australia
As the harvesting season comes to a close in the south of Oz there is a matter which must not be left behind. The Murray-darling rivers thirst quenched state has affected many- farmers, local businesses, but it also seems to have taken its toll on the thousands of backpackers following the governments highly promoted ‘harvest trail’ along its once fruitful region. Due to water restrictions placed on farmers, the fruit yield is declining and the fruit being produced is becoming smaller. This has created a domino effect meaning less jobs, lower wages and hints of declining conditions for the workers. The harvesting of Australia relies heavily on these travellers, who commonly fund their working-visa holidays by picking or packing Australian fruit. So much so, that it is rare to find an Aussie out in the orchards as picking crews are generally made up of backpackers and Indians.
In pursuit of a glance into the backpacker’s life in Australia, I made a pit stop along my journey from Adelaide to Sydney in a little town by the Murray River called Waikerie, to do a spot of orange picking. What I was faced with, was something very un-Australian with workers earning less than base wage, under hostile and abusive supervisors, and borderline, exploitive conditions.
To offer a glance - the pickers are paid on a contract per bin basis- $25 for a 400-500kg bin. ‘This was an easy task and earned good money back 5 years ago’ says local and seasonal picker, Paul Dodge ‘but today with the size of the fruit and the neglected conditions of the trees, you can be lucky to earn 10 bucks an hour. Back in the day you would get fed, water was supplied and you would be driven to each orchard. Now they just take advantage of the young backpackers’. Regardless of the changes, the contract wage has remained the same. This has left many earning less than $10 per hour, on some occasions less than $5. Some of the former employees of the particular contractor I worked for, having moved on in their travels, reported to not even have been paid for their time there. In talks with other travellers I discovered this to be common place.
Conditions are disgraceful with no toilet facilities being provided leaving female workers to go under the trees. No water is supplied, even on the scorching hot days.
The farmers are not to blame, yet rather the contractors who manage and employ the pickers. When I quizzed Ivor Gents, the one and only contractor of the orange capital Loxton-Waikerie area about the situation, they got very nervous and reluctant to comment.
A local, who preferred to remain anonymous, enlightened me further on the shifty workings of this particular contractor.
‘They have been caught with their pants down before not following up with paying their workers. They were based in Berri before, yet moved on for this reason’.
With ‘immigration’ becoming a buzz word in the Australian media at present, we must remember the thousands of those who fill the holes in the labour market which the normal Australian refuse to fill, like plucking oranges from an overgrown tree in searing heat. This transfers over into our cities, especially along the eastern coast, in which the pitifully paid jobs are laboured over by those aliens who have come to the land of plenty not for the sun and surf section of the tourism brochure. If we choose to open our doors to these travellers, we cannot only open it half way, yet all the way with a cup of tea in hand and a welcome mat, as long as they don’t wipe their shoes on it.
Now, can somebody pass the salt…