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Backpackers became slaves for Australian farmers

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The popular program is promoted as a cultural exchange: Young and adventurous travelers can experience Australia's wild outback, while farmers gain much needed agricultural labor.

In reality, the 88-day working holiday has turned into a living nightmare for thousands of backpackers being exploited and abused by unscrupulous farmers.

Many find themselves in debt, forced to pay rent for weeks at hostels while waiting for work that never arrives. Others are injured or fear for their lives, forced to operate dangerous machinery without training. Many report underpayment. Some report sexual assault. And accommodations are often appalling.

The largely unregulated industry often operates in remote locations without phone service or Internet connections.

Andrea Argiolas, 22, from Pinerolo, Italy, said he worked two weeks on a peach farm in Shepparton in northern Victoria, Australia. He paid $175 a week in rent at a hostel and was promised he could earn $31 per half-ton bin picking the fruit. He was never paid, then told there was no more work.

“After that I went to Mildura to pick grapes. The pay looked good, but after two weeks working nine-hour days I received my pay slip. It was $300,” he said. “I was sleeping in my car. I decided to leave. I couldn’t do that.”

These working hostels coordinate with farmers to supply laborers. But when backpackers arrive, they are told to pay a bond and rent in advance, then spend weeks waiting for work.

“I traveled to Ayr, Queensland, after being reassured on the phone there was plenty of work for me. There was a bed reserved for me and rent was $160 a week,” said one backpacker who was not named in a written submission to a parliamentary inquiry into adopting what's called a Modern Slavery Act.

“Upon arrival was told of the $300 bond needed in cash and explained the rules, including a fee of $10 a day to drive you to the farm. Was then told it could take a while for there to be work available to me, worst case two weeks waiting,” the backpacker wrote.

“After speaking to people I was told I would be more than likely be here for more than three months. Some had been there for almost half a year as the work is spread out to a couple of days a week to keep you there for much longer paying full rent.”

Australia has more than 134,000 farming businesses that employ more than 307,000 people, according to the National Farmers Federation.

In peak season “backpackers make up about a third of the workforce,” said Ben Rogers, a federation spokesman. “The labor shortage is a serious issue for the sector and is heavily reliant on seasonable labor and particularly backpackers.”

Rogers said abuse of the backpackers also damages "brand Australia."

“We want this dealt with too. It discourages people from going out and doing the work when there is a desperate need for it.” But he said the overall program “is a positive experience for many.”

The parliamentary inquiry has heard dozens of grievances from foreign workers collected by British mother Rosie Ayliff, after her daughter, Mia Ayliff, 21, was stabbed to death last year by a French backpacker at a hostel in the remote township of Home Hill in far north Queensland.

The young woman's mother has campaigned since then for changing the system. Hearings for the inquiry ended Oct. 30, and a final report will to go parliament before Christmas.

Under the program, backpackers wishing to extend their one-year working visa for an extra year are required to complete 88 days of agricultural labor in rural areas that experience chronic shortages of people willing to work in the harsh conditions.

Rachel MacKenzie of Growcom, Queensland's main organization for horticulture producers, said, "We have zero tolerance for unethical or illegal behavior. There are good protections in place for workers. But in horticulture, workers are vulnerable. It can't be denied that the work is hard. ... But the backpackers get to go places they otherwise would never have seen."

Alex Bell, 19, from Brighton, England, said she left her job picking sweet potatoes for 10 hours a day in remote Atherton, after the farmer made sexual advances toward her.

“I came to Australia after I finished school for a new experience, to travel, to see as much of this country as possible,” she said. “The farmer was really inappropriate with all the girls. He would come up behind me and rub against me, or hold my hands while I was packing.”

Andrea Rochi, 30, from Milan, said the work was grueling but necessary for the privilege to stay in Australia.
“At the end of the day, no one is holding a gun to your head,” he said.

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