BACKPACKERS AT RISK ‘ ANYWHERE’
“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.