‘Something was off’: Backpacker details nightmare experience working on farms

·Lifestyle Editor
·6-min read

A backpacker has detailed her traumatic experience working on farms in Australia to highlight what she says is “slave labour and an exploitation” of international visitors.

Lo Aleen, a backpacker from the US who is living in regional Victoria, posted a video on YouTube about her encounter with a landlord who would drive her to and from a farm as part of specified work required to extend her working holiday visa.

After applying to work on a farm in Victoria, Ms Aleen realised the man who posted the advertisement was not a farmer but instead the landlord who would appeal to people, “especially girls”, to live in his extra guesthouse.

Lo Aleen takes a selfie while wearing her glasses.
Lo Aleen was working in regional Victoria when she had a disconcerting encounter. Source: Instagram

She said immediately she could tell there was “something a little bit off” about the man, adding he had shared intimate details about his health and relationships.

However Ms Aleen had to take the job opportunity as she had to work three months on a farm to extend her visa or return to the United States.

“My window was quickly closing because I was stuck in Melbourne for so long. I really was just so desperate I had no other options, you know, I kind of could tell that he maybe wasn’t the best,” she said.

“There was really nothing I could do, I had to take the job, and it really only went downhill from there.”

Backpacker paid about $9 an hour

Ms Aleen said she and another girl were paying $165 a week to sleep on mattresses on the landlord’s floor and when they arrived, the guesthouse was so filthy they spent two days cleaning it “just to make it inhabitable”.

She added the landlord also made homophobic slurs and was racist, mocking the accents of other workers of Indian descent.

Lo Aleen stands on a ladder and picks cherries.
Lo Aleen says backpackers on farms are underpaid. Source: Instagram

“Another girl and I were always uncomfortable,” she said.

Ms Aleen also described the work picking kiwis as “ridiculously tedious”.

She was paid about $500 a week for working 7am to 4pm for six days – equating to just $9 per hour.

After just weeks working under those conditions, Ms Aleen and another girl she met at the farm decided to find work elsewhere.

“[Telling the landlord] did not go well. He immediately got super angry saying, ‘how can you do this to me after everything I’ve done for you, I’ve treated you right’, essentially a bunch of stuff that sounded more like it was coming from an abusive ex-boyfriend than a landlord,” she said.

She claimed they were kicked out and had just 12 hours to pack and find a new place to stay.

Backpacker struggles to afford food

Ms Aleen said she had gone on to work at various farms where she’s experienced similarly dire circumstances.

“Some of the farms that I was working at, we would be working eight hours a day to provide food for other people who can afford it. Meanwhile, we’re getting paid so little that we have issues affording food ourselves,” she said.

The backpacker added she had worked for 10 hours thinning pears and was only paid $37. She went on to do cherry picking and was paid $50 for seven hours work.

“Not to mention, a lot of our male bosses and co-workers would say just incredibly inappropriate things to us, commenting on our body, pretending to smack our a**es,” she said.

“I’ve noticed that a lot of people have the same issues, a lot of people are experiencing the same things, and I really just want to kind of share that and let people know what’s happening here.”

Backpacker’s concern over ‘exploitation’

While Ms Aleen acknowledged she was not being forced to undergo farm work, she wanted to speak up as others were not as lucky to be in her position.

“I’m incredibly lucky in that I’m only going to be working in this industry for three months and then I’m done,” she said.

“And if I really found it that horrible I could just go back to the United States, I don’t have to stay here, but I wanted to make this video and share my experience and speak up on this topic because I know that not everyone is that lucky.

“Some people can’t go back to their home countries either because it’s unsafe, or because even this underpaid farm work is better than whatever options they would have there.”

Ms Aleen said Australia should improve its labour laws and crackdown “on this exploitation” so people are more willing to work on farms.

A small lamb and its mother in a bare paddock during a dust storm.
Backpackers are required to undergo farm work to extend their visas. Source: Getty

The young woman’s experience is not an isolated incident, with backpackers and other migrants telling similar stories of exploitation including pay well below minimum wage, seven-day working weeks and other mistreatment.

A recent report from the McKell Institute found some workers were being paid as little as $3 an hour in Coffs Harbour on NSW’s north coast.

Australian Workers' Union national secretary Daniel Walton said claims that exploitation on farms was limited to a few bad apples needed to stop.

"This shocking new report can be added to the mountain of research indicating that Australian farms have become a hotbed of wage theft, exploitation and worker abuse," he said.

"It's not just Coffs Harbour either – pick a spot on the map and you will find outrageous exploitation."

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said however the issue was limited to a small minority, which could destroy the reputation of agricultural work.

Senator slams campaign targeting travellers

Labor has also come out swinging against the latest campaign to get Kiwis to work on Australian farms.

The campaign is targeting New Zealanders with slogans including “enjoy the fruits of your labour” and “pick your way to paradise”.

But Labor senator Kristina Keneally says the conditions that backpackers and temporary visa holders face on farms are far from paradise.

Senator Keneally reiterated people were paid as little as $3 an hour, with shocking stories of sexual exploitation, physical abuse and stolen wages also prevalent.

Kristina Keneally speaks in parliament.
Kristina Keneally says conditions backpackers face on farms are far from paradise. Source: AAP

"Many Australian parents would be horrified to learn that the fruit they put in their kids' lunchbox has been picked often by a 19-year old backpacker who is sexually exploited and having her wages stolen," she said.

"It's not paradise, Scott Morrison, and no advertising campaign is going to turn it into paradise."

Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham said recent revelations of worker exploitation did not help his campaign pitch, and urged Kiwis to speak up if they encountered unscrupulous farmers.

"If they encounter poor practice they should call it out, they should report it, and we will throw the book at people,” he said.

There would ordinarily be about 135,000 working holiday makers in Australia at this time of year, but as a result of coronavirus, that is down to about 52,000.

with AAP

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