australia · queensland · Travel

Our First Two Weeks of Fruit Picking in Queensland, Australia. Good Hostel, Psychotic Farm Supervisor.

First Stop – A small town 3 hours east of Brisbane, QLD

The first place we gained employment is at a working hostel in a small rural town 3 hours east of Brisbane, I will be omitting real names for legal purposes, from this point on the working hostel I stayed at will simply be referred to as ‘the hostel’ and the location will be referred to as ‘the town’ . After hearing back from the owners via email I decided to give them a call, at this point Becky and I were still in Bali. I spoke to ‘M’ who owns the hostel with her husband, ‘C’.  M told me that they had spaces available and guaranteed work picking apples at the local farms for $40 per bin and if we wanted to reserve the places all we would need to do is email them through a bus ticket confirmation to prove that we were committed to travelling to their hostel. We booked our ticket with the coach company and emailed them through the confirmation to reserve our places.

When we arrived at the hostel our first impressions were good, the facilities looked clean, there was a big kitchen and common area filled with backpackers who had just finished their day’s work. M and C were both out when we arrived but returned after around an hour, M greeted us and she was just as she seemed over the phone, friendly and helpful – she helped us fill out all the paperwork we needed and we made the payment for our first 4 nights at the hostel. We were taken to our room which contained 3 bunkbeds, a large locker for each guest, a clean toilet cubicle and a shower. The room was spacious and clean so up to now the hostel was scoring pretty high for us. We met our new roomies, a young German couple who are friendly and funny, and a very energetic and friendly Canadian girl. Fortunately it seems as though we have got a good group to share our room with.

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At this point there was only two negatives things about the hostel, the first is that it is a dry hostel so you can forget about enjoying a cold beer after 9 hours of physical labour in the field and if you do decide to have a sneaky one, you will be kicked out with no refund, your bond will not be returned and there are no second chances. I have seen this happen once already and we’ve only been here 4 days, however, I also see the no alcohol rule as a plus as not everyone can handle their booze and can behave like idiots after a few beers, certainly not what you want when you have to be up at 5am the next day. The second negative point is the price, it will cost you $205 per person per week to stay at the hostel, on top of this you will need to pay a $50 per person bond, although this is refundable – there is also no Wifi at the hostel and it will cost you $4 every time you need to do a wash, so when you first arrive at the hostel you will have to pay $510 (as a couple) before earning anything – this is obviously something that needs to happen at every working hostel but I think this one is a little steep, most hostels seem to be around $150 per person per week.

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So, up to now the hostel is nice, the owners are friendly enough and we have nice roomies, the only thing that can go wrong now is the work…

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M had informed us that we would be going to an orchard called ‘S******’s’, when we told other backpackers this we were met with a unanimous “ooooooohhhh” and a mass rolling of the eyeballs. We were then told that this farm was the worst of them all, not because the work was hard but because the supervisor was ‘a cunt’.

Our roommates told us that there is no point attempting to be friendly with the supervisor on the farm as he doesn’t really acknowledge the fruit pickers, but when he does he is not very nice to them…the situation on the farm wasn’t sounding great.

The following morning we woke up at 5am, put on our work clothes and were on the bus 30 minutes later. At the start of each week C puts up a list on the fridge, this shows the time each bus will depart in the morning for the different farms, ours is always the earliest which I quite liked because it also meant that we returned home the earliest in the afternoon. The journey from the hostel to the orchard takes around 10 minutes, when we arrived we were called over by, a young German girl who had previously worked on the farm, she was now working as a kind of deputy supervisor, she took our names and put the new people into a group – there are new people starting at the farm almost every day due to the high turnaround.

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Each fruit picker has their own designated picking bag and each bag has a number written on it, for the duration of your stay at the farm you will use the same bag each day. After collecting our bags we were put into a group of three with a young Swedish girl who had been working at the farm for a week and already she looked physically and emotionally drained, it was her fist day back after taking two days off because she broke her toe on the farm. The first experience we had of our supervisor, ‘D’ ‘the cunt’ was when he came over to the young Swedish girl and said to her “it’s not hard to come to work”, and this wouldn’t be the last instance of his horrendous attitude we would experience.

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Pickers are usually grouped into teams of 2 or 3; each team has a small tractor with a designated driver. At any one time the tractor will be pulling three bins behind it, these are the bins that you fill with apples, each one holds around 350-500kg of fruit depending on the size and density of the apples and for each bin you fill you receive $40, this will be split between all of the team members.

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We filled our first three bins in about 4 hours, which works out at around $10 per hour per person, roughly half of minimum wage, within about half an hour of the first 3 bins being returned we heard the sound of a motorbike engine, seconds later D comes around the corner riding his quad, he jumps off and says “you three, over here” – he holds up a leaf and says “there’s too much of this shit in your bins and you’ve been picking apples off the floor and putting them in the bins, I don’t want to see any of that shit again or you’re fired” – we hadn’t been putting apples from the floor into the bins, maybe some old apples with brown stems had been picked from the tree without us noticing as it was our first day, but D isn’t the sort of person you want to argue with, not because he is scary or intimidating but because he has a habit of firing people for absolutely nothing. (D told us that he ‘could tell’ that apples had been picked off the floor because they had brown stems, even though there are brown stemmed apples hanging from the dead branches of some trees which you’re allowed to pick – after this outburst we didn’t want to pick the brown stemmed apples through fear he would accuse us of picking them up off the floor).

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We’ve just finished our seventh day working at the farm, we have seen numerous people come and go from the hostel, most of them have had to leave after being fired. We estimate there are 50 people currently at the hostel, new faces appear every day and familiar faces disappear just as frequently. I am going to try and keep a running log of the people who leave and their reason for leaving. I will try not to be biased and give a truthful representation of why people leave.

  • A few days prior to our arrival, a guy was told not to come back to the farm after putting his feet on D’s sofa during a house party, people have told us D (the supervisor) had to be restrained from hitting the backpacker and forced him out of the house.  *This happened before we arrived but it was one of the first stories we were told by the other backpackers.
  • The young Swedish girl who we were teamed up with at the start left 2 days after we arrived – she had broken her toe on the farm and although she was now able to work she chose to leave due to the way D treated her after taking 2 days off. She left with her friend who had also had enough.
  • 2 Portuguese Germans were told to leave the farm by D, he accused them of breaking one of the tractors. For most people who come to the farms it will be their first time driving a tractor, you’re given little instruction on how to use them, I think D does this on purpose so that he has an excuse to flip his lid. After D’s ‘deputy’ suggested that he was a bit harsh, he allowed them to come back to the farm, however, they chose to leave the hostel the same day due to the tirade of abuse they received from D.
  • Two British guys who started on another orchard called M*******’s farm were sacked on their first day for being ‘too slow’.
  • A Spanish guy was fired for missing the bus to work, he was not given a second chance.
  • A German guy was evicted as he put a bottle of whisky in the fridge, and since the hostel is a dry hostel he was evicted without notice. There are no second chances for drinking or possessing alcohol on site – this is however stated in the rules, so it was his fault.
  • 7 people were fired from M*******’s farm, amongst the 7 were a Swedish couple who had been at the farm for 10 weeks, this shows that nobody is immune. The farm had just changed over from harvesting a more bruise resistant apple to harvesting the more delicate Granny Smith apples, on the first day their supervisor told them they had bruised some of the apples and fired them all, there was no second chance and some of the workers hadn’t been warned that the apples were more delicate.  However, it should be noted that none of these people were evicted from the hostel and were placed on another farm, so I think even the owners of the hostel are getting fed up with the attitude of some of the farm supervisors when it comes to firing people.

*We have witnessed a total of 15 people leave the hostel in the first 2 weeks due to being fired from their jobs or not being able to cope with the supervisors.

I am writing now on Friday 14th of April, we now have 4 days off over the Easter period. Yesterday didn’t start off so well, it was team change day, fortunately Becky and I were kept together – they tend to do this with couples which is quite nice, however we had lost ‘S’ from our group, she is a young German girl travelling with her friend ‘K’, S usually drives the tractor and since she was moved to another team this meant that tractor driving duty was passed on to me.

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After everyone else had left on their tractors D’s deputy took me over to our tractor and gave me some ‘training’, the training consisted of her pointing to the left side of the tractor and telling me ‘this is the clutch’ and pointing to the left of the steering wheel and saying ‘this is the start button’. I was quite nervous considering I had seen how many times D had lost his rag with people over not driving the tractor with the precision of an experienced farmer. After starting the tractor it cut out almost instantly due to how cold it was in the morning and the fact I was never told where the throttle was located, I restarted the tractor and since my surroundings were quite noisy I didn’t hear the engine had started and pressed the starter motor button for a little too long (maybe 2 or 3 seconds after the engine turned over), immediately my arm was whacked off the steering wheel by D, subsequently bending my thumb back on the steering wheel, this was followed by him shouting “Do you hear that fucking sound, if you leave that starter motor running again I’ll break your fucking arms, the last guy who did that nearly got his lights punched out”, I didn’t know what to do at this point as he was in my face so I just apologised – after telling a number of local residents and backpackers about this they have told me to go to the police but I know how much Becky and I need the money and I am certain that if I went to the police we would also be fired. After being threatened by the supervisor I had the task of driving the tractor down the road with the rest of the tractor motorcade, we moved at no more than 2mph, the journey took around 20 minutes and we didn’t start picking until 40 minutes after we arrived at the farm, in that time we received no pay.

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Around 30 minutes after we started picking we had filled around three quarters of a bin before D came over and said, “you two, leave your bags here you’re going to the packing shed for the day”, we jumped on the back of his flatbed and he drove us down the road to the packing shed. The work was backbreaking for me as I had to stack the trays of apples in to crates and then stack them up on pallets. Each crate weighs around 20kg which isn’t a lot but when you’re moving 4 per minute consistently for an hour at a time it really started to give me back ache. The packing shed job was hard work but it was a dream come true as we were being paid by the hour, I couldn’t believe that we were actually receiving minimum wage instead of the usual half minimum wage we had received most days. So, although the day started off bad it took a good turn, although Becky and I really don’t want to go back to picking now that we have experienced the ‘good life’ in the packing shed.

Since the 7 person exodus from M*******’s farm everyone is feeling on edge, both M*******’s and S******’s farms are moving onto the delicate Granny Smith apples, and within one day of harvesting these apples roughly 10% of the hostel population have been fired from their jobs, the general feeling is that more people will be fired next week. D has stated that if he finds more than 3 apples in a bin with bruises then the bin will not be counted and we will not receive any pay, keep in mind that currently most people are receiving an average of $80-120 per day picking as fast as they can, this is for 9 hours of work, he says that we need to slow down and handle the Granny Smith apples “as though they are eggs”, at this rate I expect that a team of 3 people will struggle to fill 6-7 bins per day.

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A local Wallaroo.  I had no idea this animal even existed until we were told a few days ago.

The current atmosphere at the hostel is one of fear; I have seen people crying, people fear being sacked and kicked out of the hostel with nowhere to go in the middle of nowhere, people fear the verbal abuse and since D has moved onto making threats of violence and on one occasion has actually gotten physical, I now fear that there could be more violence.  I have spoken to the Queensland Workplace Bullying Line and they told me to speak to Police Line which I did – since there has been a threat of violence and one incident of violence they have instructed me to go to the police station in Stanthorpe.  I am still unsure if I will do this as I am quite nervous of the outcome.

Summary:

Nights stayed at the hostel so far = 18

Days worked at the farm = 11

Hostel owners (M and C):

Temperament = 5/5

Helpfulness = 4/5

Moral compass = 2/5

Running of their premises/organization = 5/5

Overall = 16/20

In all honestly I was pretty apprehensive of coming to the hostel due to the overwhelming number of reviews lambasting M and C. Personally I quite like both of them, they are friendly and polite, they have helped us with a number of different issues, they run a tight ship and even though the cost of the hostel is high and there is no wifi the place is really nice as far as backpacker standards go. I only really have one issue, you may have noticed that I included a rating for ‘moral compass’ which may seem weird, but I decided to do this as the working hostel owners all over Australia decide where they send their workers and if they’re sending you workers to bad/dangerous workplaces and they’re happy to do so then their moral compass needs to be recalibrated. Stanthorpe is a small town, everyone knows everyone, so M and C certainly know what D’s temperament is like – at the farm we experience verbal abuse every day, I have revived threats of violence and one incident of physical violence, and since M, C, D and all of the supervisors know each other it is impossible to make a complaint without risking being evicted without notice.

Location:

Friendliness of the people = 5/5

Vibe = 4/5

Amenities = 5/5

Things to do = 3/5

Overall = 17/20

Like much regional work you will be located in small towns and as such I am going to review it on that basis.  We were located in a small sleepy town about 3.5 hours east of Brisbane. The town is reminiscent of the setting of a Stephen King novel; it has a similar look to the small rural towns you find in America’s mid west. On the high street you will find bottle shops (although not much use in a dry hostel), a Woolworths, an ALDI, an IGA and a few different small shops and pubs. If you fancy a quiet weekend you can head down to the creek for a barbecue and some drinks, the creek is about a 15 minute walk away from the hostel. The people are really friendly and the town is a nice place to spend some time doing your regional work – it would honestly be the perfect place if it weren’t for the supervisor on our farm.

The farm

The work = 4/5

The supervisor = 1/5

Being treated with respect and made to feel safe at work = 1/5

Earning potential = 3/5

Job security = 2/5

Overall =11/25

I think picking apples is one of the best types of fruit picking you can do and if I am honest I actually really enjoy the work, I love being outside and doing a physical job for 9 hours a day; it’s great coming home, eating a big meal and then falling asleep instantly, it’s really done wonders for my body clock. On some days I come home gutted that I have only managed to earn $80 ($68 after tax) but it is still enough to make rent, feed ourselves and save a little. The only issue I have is with our supervisor, D – how he isn’t in jail yet is beyond me, he has the mental stability of Charles Manson and spends 90% of his day trying to intimidate people. I believe D is a potential danger to any backpackers who end up working under his supervision, I’d also like to point out that the man in question doesn’t own the farm he is just the picking supervisor).

Hostel

Living quarters = 5/5

Cooking facilities = 3/5

Cleanliness = 4/5

How good is the hostel for work = 3/5

Lifestyle at the hostel = 4/5

Overall = 19/25

I haven’t seen much in terms of working hostels in Australia, but I could imagine the living conditions at this working hostel to be one of the best: the rooms are spacious, the bathroom is clean and functional, the shower is hot and the beds are super comfortable – there is nothing more than you could ask for as a backpacker. The kitchen at the hostel is a good size, but maybe not big enough for the number of people staying at the hostel as there is an 8-ring burner with only enough space for 2 or 3 people to cook at once, the oven no longer works and after a couple of hours of cooking the place looks like a bomb has hit it, this isn’t the fault of the owners or cleaner, this is the fault of the few lazy backpackers who ruin the space for the other residents. In terms of finding you work the hostel is pretty good, they have strong relationships with a number of farms so when they say they can guarantee you work then they can, the only issue is that they can sometimes send you to a farm with an abusive supervisor, so for this reason I have marked them down. Already at the hostel we have met a number of nice people, our roomies are very friendly and we have shared a good few laughs, the town is a nice place to do some grocery shopping or pop down to the pub for a pint and the surroundings are lovely – if you manage to actually stay here without getting fired then I think most people would be very happy here, the only reason I have not given 5/5 is because of the dry hostel rule, I wish I could relax outside with a beer on the weekend instead of having to go to the pub and spend more money.

Overall situation (hostel, town and work) = 63/90

The overall living conditions at the hostel are great, the town is nice and the overwhelming majority of the town’s inhabitants are friendly and helpful. M and C, the owners of the hostel have always been helpful and friendly to us, the only issue I have with them is that they choose to send people to a farm where people are verbally abused on a daily basis. This overall rating for my experience up to now is quite high, the reason for this is that most aspects of our current situation are either average or above average aside from the situation on the farm, many people based on S******’s and M*******’s farms are feeling anxious, I have heard people crying, some people fear that they will be fired and evicted come Tuesday when we return to work, I have experienced one act of physical violence and threats of violence from my supervisor – I feel threatened to the point I have asked my fiancée to shout “watch out!” if she sees him running up behind me again as last time he only hit me on my arm, I fear next time it could be the back of my head.

Since we don’t have wifi here I have just been logging these events on MS Word over the past 2 weeks – I have tried to include dates to trigger my memory in the future and be as accurate as possible.  One other issue we have had on the farm is occasionally it is very difficult to make money.  I took a video on Tuesday 18th April when we were on the farm, we were taken to an area full of apple trees in horrific condition, most of the apples were squishy, rotten or had previously fallen to the ground.  It took our team of two people 7 hours to fill 1.5 bins earning $30 ($4.29 per hour) each for the 7 hour day, most people earned between $30-50 for the full day.  You can see the video below, I took this video just to show that I am not exaggerating.

I am going to keep logging events on our journey so if you’re interested in reading about my experience picking fruit in Australia please stay tuned.  If you or anyone you know are put in a situation where you’re placed on S******’s Orchard then proceed at your own risk as the supervisor is described by many locals as a “psychopath” and I have personally experienced violence and further threat of violence.

Until next time…

Matt

*All posts on this blog, including photographs, videos and writing are my intellectual property, do not presume that I am happy for any of my material to be reused by news outlets or other external sources.  If you wish to use anything from my blog/social media you must first contact me and receive my explicit permission before proceeding.*

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