The three months prior to our arrival in Australia were perhaps the laziest of our lives – most of our time was spent travelling, eating, drinking and sleeping; other than a bit of writing we had not done anything in terms of ‘work’, all of this indulgence however had made quite the impact on our wallets…
We had been in Bali for almost a couple of weeks and we were still undecided on where to settle down for a while, we had originally thought we would head over to Vietnam to teach English for a while, although the sporadic nature of the work in the major cities put us off and we eventually decided that Australia would be our best bet to earn some money.
We applied for the 417 Working Holiday Visa, the cost was around £350 per person, and since Becky and I had both previously lived in countries that the Australian government deems as high risk areas we had to go for a medical assessment at a panel approved medical centre in Kuta, this was an additional £100 per person. Once the medical was complete it was sent to the Australian Immigration Department and both Visas were approved in the same week. Once we received our visas we booked flights from Bali to Brisbane at a cost of around £150 per person, knowing we would need a little time in the city to arrange our bank accounts, mobile phones and tax file numbers, we decided to also book a couple of nights at a hostel which cost around £60 for the two of us.
Finding regional work in Queensland was proving to be a little more difficult than we had anticipated, this was partly due to the cyclone which was currently ravaging the northern Queensland coast but mostly due to the nature of fruit picking – you need to be able to travel to the region and start work ASAP, being in Bali this was not something we were able to do. Fortunately, toward the end of our stay in Bali and after many email enquiries we received a response from a working hostel in Stanthorpe, they were able to guarantee apple picking work straight away and had places still available so we agreed and booked our coach tickets there.
There is only one coach company which travels from Brisbane to Stanthorpe, it is called Crisps Coaches and the cost of a ticket is around £40($65) per person. Allowing around £300 essential spends between us for our initial stay in Brisbane to cover the cost of SIM cards, mobile phone plans and food I estimate that our total expenditure to get us to this point has cost around £1,000 per person including the initial rent payment and bond at the working hostel. After spending all this money to get to Australia and start working our travel savings dropped to around £1200, which wasn’t even enough for a flight home if we needed it – at this point failure was not an option and we really needed to get working and get saving…
On paper fruit picking in the regional areas of Australia sounds fantastic – spending your time in the outdoors picking fruit in a country that offers a very generous minimum wage of $22.13 per hour for this type of work, but when you start searching the backpacker job boards you will soon realise that everything isn’t as rosy as it first seems. No matter how much you search the internet you will really struggle to find a working hostel where the reviews leave you with a good impression.
Since much of Australia’s farms are outside of the major cities, you will struggle to find accommodation near farms unless you have a camper van where you can stay, since many backpackers do not have the option of living in a camper van this is where the working hostels step in. Working hostels arrange work for you at the local farms, sometimes they provide transport to and from the farms and they are where you will sleep and spend your downtime. The concept of a working hostel sounds perfect – pay a weekly nominal fee and everything you need to start earning money fruit and vegetable picking is taken care of. So what’s the problem? Well, there are actually two problems.
The first problem is ‘Piece Rate’. There are two ways you can be paid for your fruit picking work: you can receive the hourly rate of $22.13 per hour, however these jobs are now few and far between with farmers choosing to pay their pickers a piece rate. The piece rate has been set out by the Australian Horticultural Award, it allows farmers to essentially bypass the legal minimum wage, however the farmer must demonstrate that workers being paid by the piece are still able to earn at least 15% more than the legal minimum wage, they do this by showing to government that it is possible for workers to pick enough fruit to earn the equivalent of minimum wage+15%.
So the piece rate actually sounds very reasonable doesn’t it? The only reason you wouldn’t earn more than minimum wage is if you’re lazy…Well, it’s not really that simple and this is demonstrated by the number of backpackers claiming that they have finished working 8-hour+ days with only enough money to cover their rent, so it got me thinking, is there anything to stop farmers demonstrating that their piece rate is achievable by using the numbers obtained from experienced workers picking fruit from trees in good condition and of a structure where the fruit is easy to pick? The answer is no.
You may be thinking, would the condition and structure of trees make much of a difference? The answer is yes, the difference is staggering, I will use apple trees for an example. In an orchard, apple trees are arranged in rows, if you have a row where all of the trees are short and fully laden with low hanging fruit at arms reach then a couple of fast pickers could possibly fill 3 bins in two hours earning them between $90-$120, however, on the other side of the coin you could find yourself picking apples on a row full of tall trees where the fruit is spread between arm reach, middle ladder rung height and top rung ladder height – these trees take a long time to strip and it may in some cases take a couple of pickers 2 hours to fill one bin earning them between $30-40 for 2 hours work. So fruit picking work is hit and miss, you could find yourself coming home with over $200 after tax or you could find the number to be much more soul destroying, like $60, which is around a third of the legal minimum wage…not bad eh?
The second problem backpackers often encounter whilst working on farms is the treatment they receive from farmers. When you agree to the terms of entry into Australia there are a few paragraphs on how human rights must be respected and anyone entering Australia to work is entitled to the same workers rights as Australians and must be respected and blah blah blah. While this may be true for all other industries, the rules don’t really apply to fruit and vegetable pickers. Some things you can expect to experience include farmers/supervisors driving around on quads observing their workers and shouting at them to work faster, being sworn at on a daily basis, being fired for trivial issues, farmers refusing to pay full wages for reasons they deem fit, exposure to dangerous conditions without being given adequate training, and of course using piece rate wages as a legal channel to bypass paying workers the minimum wage. There is a reason you rarely see an Australian fruit picker.
So, instead of just reading other peoples stories, we decided to check out the fruit picking life for ourselves and I am going to document it all here…