Winnie Phillips had to work in regional Australia as part of her working holiday visa conditions. (Supplied)
There’s a subclass of workers in Australia being paid as little as $3 an hour, but there’s nothing strictly illegal about their situation.
- The working holiday visa program was recently expanded by the Federal Government
- Winnie Phillips, a British visitor, alleges her pay sometimes worked out to be as little as $3 an hour
- Casey Smith, a US visitor, says her experience means she will not apply for a third-year extension
Every year about 150,000 people enter Australia on the working holiday visa. If they want to stay a second year, they have to do 88 days of work in regional parts of the country.
Winnie Phillips is living back in Sydney now, but a month ago, she was on a strawberry farm near Caboolture in Queensland.
She is visiting from London and has just been granted her second-year visa, after spending three months picking and packing fruit.
Working for $3 an hour in Australia
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Ms Phillips had heard the work could be dangerous and difficult before she began, so she did her research.
“I was reading reviews online, places not to go,” she said.
Trawling Facebook groups set up for employers and travellers to connect, she saw enough horror stories to worry her.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘do I really want to do this?’,” she said.
With no other option if she wanted to stay in Australia, Ms Phillips packed her things and moved from Sydney to Queensland.
The first surprise was the low pay. Like most farmworkers, Winnie was paid a “piece rate”, meaning pay is calculated according to the volume of produce that’s picked or packed, rather than the hours worked.
“The advert said $400-500 a week, [but] you’d have to pack 2,000 strawberries a day to achieve that,” she said.
At one farm, Winnie Phillips said, staff would not give her the name of the owner of the farm. (Supplied: Winnie Phillips)
Her actual pay was often so low it failed to cover her rent of $160 a week.
Some days she said she made only $27, which worked out to be $3-4 an hour — around a fifth of the minimum wage.
Workers paid per punnet
The pay can seem low in picking and packing jobs, but according to Dr Stephen Clibborn of the University of Sydney Business School, it is difficult to prove workers have been underpaid.
“Many farmers and labour-hire contractors are doing the right thing, but it’s also clear that many are not doing the right thing,” he said.
“It is unfortunately very common.”
Piece rates are meant to be set so the average competent worker can make more than the hourly minimum wage. (ABC Rural: Emma Brown)
Piece rates for boxes or punnets of fruit can only be set if there is a written agreement and if the rate is set at a level where the average competent worker could earn 15 per cent above the minimum hourly wage.
“If you’re a picker on your first day on the job, you’re not yet the average competent worker, so while you might only be able to fill one or two bins in a day, at $40 a bin roughly, that would be less than the award hourly rate but it might not be in breach of the award,” Dr Clibborn explained.
Because a worker being paid a small amount is not proof the piece rate is unfair to the average competent employee, it can be difficult for organisations like the fair work ombudsman to prove there has been underpayment.
“It’s incredibly resource-intensive to determine if the piece rates are being applied appropriately,” Dr Clibborn said.
“It would basically require them to stand in a field with a clipboard and a stopwatch and watch workers working for hours.”
He said these labour conditions can create a power imbalance between workers and bosses, which can be exploited by employers who have bad intentions.
“It is a recipe for exploitation,” Dr Clibborn said.
“There’s overcrowding in accommodation; the worst I found was 70 beds in a marquee tent.
“There is sexual harassment at work and in some of the worst cases there’s withholding of certification in the form of payslips and demanding of sexual favours.”
Fighting for payslips
At the first farm where Ms Phillips worked, she said they would get their rosters only one day in advance.
“I had a few breakdowns,” she said.
“Some days I couldn’t even sleep, because [of] the uncertainty of not having the work the next day.”
On another farm, she said no-one would tell her the name of the farm’s owner for weeks on end.
“We couldn’t know his name. They wouldn’t give it to me,” she said.
After pressing the matter, she was told the owner’s first name only.
Winnie Phillips would advise other travellers who are working to make friends with other staff. (Supplied: Winnie Phillips)
Managers also resisted giving her the payslips and paperwork required to complete her visa application, Ms Phillips said, even when she got to within two weeks of her visa running out.
“That’s when I had my biggest meltdown,” she said.
“I was like, ‘I want to get this payslip, because I need it, otherwise I can’t stay!’.”
Some of the girls she was working with did not speak English as a first language and, according to Ms Phillips, they had even more trouble getting payslips from the owner.
When she completed her 88 days’ worth of work, as required, Ms Phillips said she tried to leave for the train station.
“[The owner] stood in front me and said, ‘Oh you can’t go, you still have to do more,” she said.
“She was really confrontational with me.”
Ms Phillips called a friend to pick her up and drive her to the train station, and left Caboolture for good.
Her message for other travellers doing farm work is to build networks with each other.
“Stick together and make sure you get people’s numbers if you’re feeling unsafe,” she said.
“Even if you’re not a social person, talk to people, just in case something happens.”
‘Australians don’t know how we’re treated’
Thirty-one-year-old Casey Smith, from Nashville in the US spent her entire 88 days working at a pub in Cloncurry, Queensland.
She was paid an hourly rate, but there was regular verbal abuse.
“The worst part for me was the way I was spoken to by my employer,” she said.
Casey Smith said her experience working at a regional Queensland pub put her off the idea of applying for a third year of her visa. (ABC: Xavier La Canna)
Ms Smith said her boss knew how much the workers needed the job, and that affected their treatment.
“They pretty much knew that we had to be there for a visa,” she said.
“They called us names. I was called a f***ing idiot.
“[We were] yelled at, screamed at, threatened with getting fired.”
She was one of many foreign workers doing the same work in Cloncurry, where she said there was a culture of harassment.
“Working as a bartender [you experience] your normal, run-of-the-mill everyday sexual harassment,” she said.
“In Queensland, at least where I was, there were no rules.”
She said she was told not to cut people off from the bar, because even abusive patrons were valued customers.
“People got pretty belligerent, and we were just expected to grin and bear it,” she said.
There was an understanding among the workers that speaking up would cost them their job, according to Ms Smith.
In July this year, the Federal Government extended the working holiday visa program, allowing visitors to earn a third year if they go back to work in regional Australia for six months.
After her experience, Ms Smith is not going to try for a third-year visa.
“It’s great for Australia’s economy, but I think the employers really capitalise on [the scheme],” she said.
“I don’t think [Australians] know how we are treated.”