‘There are no human rights here’: Inside the Government’s ‘exploitative’ backpacker visa scheme

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After two months of working on a farm, Elin had just $70 to show for her time.

Each year, tens of thousands of young backpackers like her are channelled onto Australian farms, where many become cheap labour and some are sexually harassed.

It is happening under a Federal Government scheme, and under its watch.

For years, the Government has assured the public it is taking action against the systematic exploitation of young travellers.

But the disturbing stories from backpackers — and data obtained under Freedom of Information laws — show otherwise.

You might wonder how it is possible to work for two months and save just $70 like Elin did.

She’s telling her story on the condition of anonymity, under an assumed name, fearing reprisals from the people she worked for.

While most Australians get paid hourly, many backpackers employed in the agriculture sector receive a piece rate — meaning their wage depends on how much they pick or plant.

During her time on a strawberry plantation in regional Queensland, Elin said she wasn’t always told what that rate was.

Her own calculations showed it was sometimes as little as $2.50 an hour.

She put up with it so she could complete 88 days of farm work — a prerequisite put in place by the Federal Government for backpackers wanting to make a second-year Working Holiday visa application.

There’s a catch — the work must be undertaken in rural or regional Australia, and in primary industries.

« We stayed, knowing that we were in a bad situation and knowing that we were getting underpaid, » Elin said.

She said her farm work was organised by a subcontractor employed by a recruitment company.

He was also the one who made Elin stay in a share house for $125 weekly rent, but only found her 16 days of work — some days for just three hours.

At various stages, she was thrown a lifeline to earn more money.

« At a certain point, we were asked to find on the internet only Asian people. And when we find an Asian [worker], we get $100, » she said of the request to recruit other backpackers via Facebook groups.

Elin said she refused on the grounds that it was « racist » and « ridiculous » to open someone else up to exploitation, but some backpackers relented and posted the ad, seen by the ABC, on social media.

Elin said throughout the ordeal the subcontractor made sexual advances to her.

It culminated in a proposition that would have made her « dependent » on him.

If she agreed to live on his property, and keep it a secret, he would pay her $500 a week.

« The deal that he made in the end, if I said yes to that, he could do whatever he wanted with me, » she said.

The ABC was unable to contact the subcontractor, but spoke to the owner of the recruitment company, who rejected Elin’s allegations and said the business was regularly audited.

He said his fastest workers planted more than 1,000 strawberries an hour — so Elin’s tiny wage could have meant « she only planted 60 strawberries per hour ».

He also said his company did not provide accommodation, and that he never made « any personal relationship with employees ».

But Elin is standing by her story, and has made two anonymous reports to the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) — the regulator overseeing workplace compliance.

« I hope they can stop the people who are exploiting people like this, » she said.

The FWO said it did not comment on individual cases.

The FWO’s own numbers provide a damning assessment of its ability to stop exploitation.

Documents obtained by the ABC under FOI laws show that last financial year the FWO completed 1,647 formal complaints related to the migrant workforce.

About one-third of them involved 417 subclass visa holders, or backpackers.

There were two outcomes — education and dispute resolution, or compliance and enforcement.

Documents show 1,412 formal disputes — or around 86 per cent — were dealt with via education and dispute resolution.

Just 14 per cent were handled via compliance and enforcement activities.

The FWO said enforcement outcomes were applied in 3 per cent of the matters, and the remaining 11 per cent were resolved through other measures that « ensured compliance ».

When asked why it overwhelmingly opted for the education approach, a spokesperson said the FWO wanted to resolve problems before they became formal disputes.

« This approach helps maintain productive and cooperative employment relationships and enables the faster recovery of unpaid wages, » the spokesperson said.

But former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chair Allan Fels said the documents « confirmed » what he had known for years — the watchdog was « a bit too much on the side of education and not sufficiently on enforcement ».

« The Fair Work Ombudsman, for whatever reason, has not done enough to deliver adequate law enforcement in that area, » he said.

« The very name, Fair Work Ombudsman, sounds very cuddly. It doesn’t sound like tough police. »

Mr Fels chaired the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce — established by the Federal Government to « protect vulnerable workers » — between 2016 and 2018.

Back then, he found the FWO came off « a low base of achievement ».

« They have been stepping up their efforts quite considerably in recent times. I still feel it is inadequate, given the scale of the problem, » he said.

« Our broad view is that there would be several hundreds of thousands of people underpaid.

« It’s embarrassing that in a well-off country like Australia, that this happens. »

Internal emails between FWO employees handling the FOI request show the regulator was reluctant to release the documents to the ABC.

These emails were released to the ABC as part of an FOI request.

« Our current ‘narrative’ around migrant workers is that this cohort is a priority for the FWO, we offer them tailored assistance and we are focussed on encouraging migrant workers to seek our help by removing barriers that make them reluctant to contact us — the data and supporting information in the proposed response doesn’t convey this, » one internal email said.

« I understand your concerns and think we clearly need to do more work to ensure the information released is more consistent with the current narrative around migrant workers, » another email read.

« I have committed to getting some info to the ABC journalist by Friday, so even if we strip the document right back and just provide her limited data and only non-controversial explanations, that would be better than nothing, » an email notes.

The FWO spokesperson told the ABC that recent visits to farms that were found to be non-compliant in its 2018 Harvest Trail Inquiry Report — which looked at the horticulture industry throughout Australia — had shown things were improving.

« While investigations are continuing in some regions, inspectors have recorded an improvement in the numbers of piece-rate agreements being signed by workers, as well as improvements in record-keeping, especially among larger firms, » the spokesperson said.

The Working Holiday visa scheme is run by the Department of Home Affairs.

It assesses whether the farm work backpackers have done meets the eligibility criteria, and grants their visas.

As a response to the growing controversy around the visa program, in 2015 the Abbott government decided that backpackers applying for a second-year visa had to provide evidence of remuneration, usually in the form of — but not limited to — payslips.

The ABC’s attempts over seven months to obtain information about what the department’s examinations had detected were knocked back.

The department said it did not have any document that summarised the data on the scale of underpayment; rather, it said, it looked at each application as an individual case.

The ABC can reveal, however, that the department can refuse to grant visas to backpackers who do their 88 days of farm work but are underpaid by their boss.

« This requirement was introduced in 2015 to discourage working holiday-makers from accepting exploitative conditions for the purpose of becoming eligible for a subsequent visa, » a spokesperson said.

Alison Rahill, the executive officer of the Anti-Slavery Taskforce of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, said the department was putting the onus on the victim.

« It’s particularly unfair if workers are paid less than the minimum wage, they’re being paid less than the award they’re entitled to be paid, and then they’re missing out on their visa extension as well because they’ve received a low payment, » she said.

But Ms Rahill said she was more concerned about the types of wrongdoing not reflected in payslips — like sexual harassment.

Raena was en route to a sheep farm in rural South Australia, when the farmer — who had offered to pick her up — started sliding his hand on her inner thigh, telling her she was his « type of backpacker ».

« Sexual harassment with the farmer started from the first day I arrived there, » she said.

Raena said he singled her out, proposing they spent her first day on the beach, not working.

« I told him ‘no’, but then he got upset and told me that since he is paying me, I’m paid to do whatever he wants — whether it’s going to the beach with him, going for a drive with him, or scooping dog poo, » she said.

At the beach, Raena said the farmer was visibly « upset » she had decided to wear a one-piece swimsuit instead of a bikini.

Throughout the farm work, she said she was confronted by inappropriate behaviour.

« The farmer would compliment me in front of his wife, saying how sexy my legs were, or how he wants to see me drive the tractor to see my boobs jiggle, » she said.

« He would constantly take photos of me, when I was bent over or doing something. I’d ask him why he took a photo of me and he said it’s simply for me to show the Government I worked. »

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