Backpackers in Queensland’s Bundaberg area finishing their 88-day farm work claim something needs to be done to root out dodgy labour hire contractors paying them illegal wages.
United States backpacker Kiah Fowler came to Bundaberg in March after losing her Airlie Beach restaurant job due to the coronavirus pandemic.
She called a labour hire company advertising accommodation in a share house and work planting strawberries, but Ms Fowler ended up paying less than the minimum wage and was unable to afford her rent.
“I’ve met some really lovely farmers who pay the legal wage and do their best to give good working conditions … and then you have this flipside which is the underbelly of the industry,” she said.
Last year, the Ombudsman listed Wide Bay as one of the highest-risk horticulture regions for violating labour laws in terms of wages, record keeping and paylips.
According to the Office of Industrial Relations (OIR) of the state, there are currently 385 licensees offering labour hire services to the Queensland horticulture and farming industry.
Over the past 12 months, the OIR has revoked 11 “non-compliance” agricultural licences.
Merle Quaak, 24, arrived from the Netherlands on a working holiday visa in Bundaberg earlier this year.
With three months remaining until it expired, she said she was forced to take the first piece-rate job she could find to finish her 88-day farm work and extend her visa for another year.
She took on a job picking tomatoes.
“I didn’t have any time to complain or wait for a good job, I just needed to get my days done so I had to accept whatever I was getting,” Ms Quaak said.
Unable to afford her rent in a hostel or living expenses, Ms Quaak managed to find hourly paid work in a packing shed.
“On my payslips it’s not specified if they pay per hour or per row, but it says ‘covering’ while I was working in the packing shed as quality control,” she said.
“‘Covering’ is working in the field, which I didn’t do.”
Superannuation payments of 9.5 per cent were also recorded by the payslips, but Ms Quaak said she had never earned a superannuation.
Between April and June, Ellie Le Var from the Channel Islands worked for a labour hire provider picking tomatoes in Bundaberg and found a number of various ABNs on her payslips.
“The company name was different between payslips,” she said.
“One week it would be one random name that you’d never heard of … and the next week it would be another name and totally different ABN.