BACK­PACK­ERS AT RISK ‘ ANY­WHERE’

Townsville Bulletin - - NEWS - JOHN AN­DER­SEN Re­gional Ed­i­tor john. an­der­sen@ news. com. au

“IT HAP­PENED in Home Hill, but it could have hap­pened any­where.”

Th­ese are the words farmer Anna Booth used last week when talk­ing about the mur­der last year of English back­packer Mia Ayliffe- Chung, 20, in a Home Hill hos­tel.

Mia was mur­dered along with UK cit­i­zen Tom Jack­son, who at­tempted to save her life.

French na­tional Smail Ayad was charged with two counts of mur­der and is held in a men­tal health fa­cil­ity in Bris­bane.

Mia’s mother Rosie Ayliffe has since em­barked on a cam­paign that threat­ens to de­ter young over­seas trav­ellers from work­ing on Aus­tralian farms.

If she is suc­cess­ful, Aus­tralia’s hor­ti­cul­ture in­dus­try, that has a farm gate value in ex­cess of $ 10 bil­lion, could be de­railed.

In UK news­pa­per The In­de­pen­dent, Rosie Ayliffe wrote about the risk of snake bite on farms and the fact that the work was “hard”. She said her daugh­ter had com­pared work­ing on farms and liv­ing in hos­tels to life in a prison camp.

She has also taken aim at the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment, ac­cus­ing it of fail­ing to en­sure the wel­fare of young back­pack­ers work­ing on Aus­tralian farms.

Bur­dekin farm­ers like Mrs Booth and Lorelle McShane know there are op­er­a­tors in their in­dus­try who prob­a­bly short- change their work­ers.

They say their in­dus­try is no dif­fer­ent from any other; there will al­ways be rot­ten ap­ples.

There are hos­tels as well that might en­tice back­pack­ers to their es­tab­lish­ments on the pre­tence that there is work when in fact there is none.

Back­pack­ers do not go to Home Hill for the scenery. They go there for work. If there is no work, they can quickly find them­selves in debt to the hos­tel owner for board.

At the cen­tre of all this is the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment pro­viso that over­seas vis­i­tors work 88 days on farms to be­come el­i­gi­ble for a sec­ond- year visa.

It is this 88 days of agri­cul­tural work that has raised Rosie Ayliffe’s ire. She be­lieves the poor su­per­vi­sion of this con­di­tion of the visa pro­gram is what placed her daugh­ter in harm’s way. She wants the sys­tem re­formed and reg­u­lated.

Mrs Booth and Ms McShane are con­cerned the Gov­ern­ment might over­re­act and can­cel the 88- day re­quire­ment.

The con­se­quences of this hap­pen­ing would be dire.

It is old news that our hor­ti­cul­tural in­dus­try can­not op­er­ate with­out back­pack­ers.

Aus­tralians, young and old, are not in­ter­ested in the work.

In North Queens­land alone, the $ 900 mil­lion ba­nana in­dus­try, which largely de­pends on back­packer labour for pick­ing and pack­ing du­ties, would strug­gle.

Like­wise the Bowen, Bur­dekin and Table­lands hor­ti­cul­tural re­gions, which make a huge con­tri­bu­tion to the state’s $ 2.8 bil­lion pro­duce in­dus­try em­ploy­ing 25,000 peo­ple, would be brought to their knees.

Back­pack­ers spo­ken to last week were happy with their lot, but they ad­vised any­one com­ing to Aus­tralia to work to do their re­search.

One trick of the trade is for a farmer to ask back­pack­ers look­ing for work to come out to the farm to do a trial day.

“You can do a trial day and not get paid,” Emma Sheri­dan, from Ire­land, said.

And there are of­fers of “cash only” work of­ten made by labour con­trac­tors.

The trou­ble is it is too late when the back­pack­ers dis­cover that the days spent work­ing off the books do not count to­wards their 88 days.

Carys Wil­liams from the UK came to Home Hill af­ter be­ing told by a hos­tel op­er­a­tor there was work. She waited for six weeks, dur­ing which she only got one day’s work.

In that time she built a debt for board to the hos­tel owner and had to pay back mates who had lent her money for food.

She is now in em­ploy­ment on a farm, where she lives in donga ac­com­mo­da­tion. She has now re­paid her debts and is en­joy­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Mrs Booth says hos­tel op­er­a­tors can­not al­ways be held to ac­count when work falls short. Farm life, be­ing what it is, is al­ways un­pre­dictable.

She said grow­ers in one dis­trict might be ex­pect­ing to start pick­ing on a cer­tain date.

The hos­tel own­ers will ad- vise back­pack­ers that work is avail­able, they be­gin to ar­rive, then at the 11th hour there is bad weather or a mar­ket glut which sees prices plum­met.

It hap­pened this week in the Bur­dekin when there was a glut in the zuc­chini mar­ket.

The price crashed, pick­ing was sus­pended and back­pack­ers who would nor­mally have been work­ing were stood down or had their hours slashed.

Back­pack­ers said some hos­tel own­ers ear­lier in the sea­son were blam­ing Cy­clone Deb­bie for a lack of work.

They know now that this was spin- doc­tor­ing in the ex­treme and that the Bur­dekin was un­touched by both Cy­clone Deb­bie and the flood rain that im­me­di­ately fol­lowed.

The Bul­letin vis­ited a back­packer vil­lage on the Bur­dekin farm where Ms Sheri­dan and Ms Wil­liams are work­ing.

Peo­ple were ly­ing on beach tow­els, sun­bak­ing be­side the zuc­chini crops they would soon be pick­ing. Some sat un­der awnings talk­ing while oth­ers pre­pared meals and made tea in the camp kitchen.

Ms Wil­liams had done her 88 days, but in­stead of leav­ing for fur­ther trav­els, she is stay­ing on to earn more money.

She is 24 and do­ing some­thing she will value for the rest of her life. She says she and her fel­low trav­ellers see the en­tire back­pack­ing ex­pe­ri­ence as an op­por­tu­nity to ex­pe­ri­ence life.

“This should be a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence for us. Here, we are mak­ing friends for life,” Ms Wil­liams said.

Farm work en­riches the lives of so many back­pack­ers in so many ways.

The sys­tem may not be per­fect, but it is some­thing the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment, with a lit­tle bit of care and at­ten­tion, can eas­ily im­prove.

Aus­tralia needs th­ese back­pack­ers to keep com­ing here. They help our farm­ers and they en­rich the lives of ev­ery­day Aus­tralians liv­ing in ru­ral towns like Bowen, Ayr, Home Hill, and Tully.

Aus­tralia gets more from them than they get from us.

Mia Ayliffe- Chung died at the hands of a for­eign na­tional in a hos­tel in Home Hill.

It is some­thing that could have hap­pened any­where.

It could have hap­pened in a hos­tel in Barcelona or Syd­ney. But, it hap­pened in Home Hill.

VISA IS­SUE: Mur­dered back­packer Mia Ayliffe- Chung ( above), foren­sic po­lice at the hos­tel ( be­low) and her mother Rosie Ayliffe ( be­low right).

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