Stepping on grapes is my jam

I’m currently sitting on a wooden floor, bunk beds creaking on either side of me as my roommates shift while reading on their phones. A tiny space heater is blowing directly at me, surprisingly powerful against the cold front that swept across the outback into our hostel perched on its edge. It is here that I will call my home for the next three months as I partake in a long-held tradition of doing backbreaking work for minimal pay in regional Australia so that the government will grant me a second working holiday visa.

I’ve never heard a good story about farm work in Australia. Ranging from employers refusing to pay their workers or sign off on their visa paperwork on the mundane end to abuse and sexual assault on the severe end of the spectrum, backpackers who wish to extend their stay have always faced a miserable 88 days. The closest to a “good” story that spreads through the traveler circuit is something like, “Oh yeah, mine was great. I worked 7am to 7pm six days a week for three months straight in the middle of nowhere where I couldn’t spend any money. I saved so much!”

Perhaps I am now going to be one of those “lucky” ones. I’ve moved into a working hostel in Northern Victoria – snagging a job in the brief few weeks that farms allowed new backpackers in before slamming their doors shut once more due to coronavirus spikes. It’s sad how low the standard is for saying I’m at a “good place”, but when I arrived I was ecstatic that I actually filled out my tax information and bank details for direct deposit with a promise of weekly payslips so I could prove my work to the government when I go to apply for my extension. The building is old – one of the toilets refuses to flush, the women’s showers only are hot a third of the time, and there is zero cutlery or crockery.

The people, on the other hand, are top-notch.  Most of us are older than 25, many of us have partners back in Melbourne who are eagerly awaiting our return, most of us are prepared to buckle down and work hard all day for three months and collapse into bed every night, and most of us arrived within the same three-day span last week. We’re settling into a strange new normal, passing along advice on how to move through the vines more quickly, how to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome, and which cupboards people are welcome to borrow oil and plates and clementines from. We played an interesting drinking game this weekend where we simply tried to count to 21 – but one of the first rules implemented was that everyone had to count in their native language. Turns out that is a more difficult concept than you’d believe, especially when someone speaks multiple languages. I sat next to a girl from Spain and we often struggled to not continue in whichever language the other had spoken in.  

As for the actual farm work: we are just as tired as we expected every night. We signed a contract for piece-rate` work, which I truly believe would never be accepted if it weren’t for desperate backpackers wishing to extend their stay. Piece rate claims that “competent” workers should be able to earn 15% higher than the minimum wage on average. We’ve looked at our crew and realized that we’re hardly incompetent – we’re getting these table-grape vines done in seconds and hardly pausing for hours, yet we struggle to hit even minimum wage. Oh, and for those 88 days? On piece rate, it doesn’t much matter how many hours you struggle in the fields – $100 earned is the equivalent of 1 farm day.

Easy vines already pulled with my safety boots saying hello

Yet once again, we are among the lucky ones who have a supervisor who fights for us – watching how long it takes us to do our work and calling the owner to argue we should be switched to hourly on certain farms. Recently, we’ve been working on vineyards pulling pruned branches from the wires. At piece rate, we should have been paid 40 cents per vine. Working in pairs on a row of 100, it took us nearly 5 hours just to finish one row thanks to the poor pruning and knotted branches reaching three vines over. Earning only $20 per person for five hours would have been perfectly legal, but our supervisor came to the rescue and called the owner to complain that it was slave wages. I’m not entirely sure of the relationship between the company owner and the farmers, but I’m grateful that he’s willing to treat us like employees.

We’ve found ourselves spending more money than we anticipated in this new profession. While we were told to bring our own safety boots and work gloves, I’ve also purchased tradie pants and safety sunglasses, along with a baseball hat to hopefully keep the branches from whipping me in the face. I bought a shelf and an extra blanket, my own mug and plate and cutlery and stove top espresso maker, and a few pairs of pruning clippers to make my life easier.

So far, I’ve been surprised at how well I’ve adapted to the work. Everything has been at a nice height for me to stand so while my shoulder blades ache from pulling, my back isn’t sore. My feet are tired from a long day, but I have no blisters anywhere. Truly, if it weren’t for my wrists waking me at night with pain and tingling, I would be doing perfectly well. I get to listen to my audiobook all day, getting into a zone for hours at a time and emerging to find half the day has flown by. My work partner is usually a Slovak girl who bemusedly will respond to me when I try to chat in her language as we tear through the vines at a breakneck speed.

At night, we shift through the six showers and sitting outside drinking a cold beer in our hi-vis vests like proper tradies. As the girls outnumber the guys 3 to 1, we often use the gents’ shower stalls as well as our own. It’s common to wander the halls and see the workers sitting in PJs, video calling their loved ones in any of half a dozen languages. Because of the older age of the backpackers, instead of nightly pasta and sandwiches, you often smell spices and vegetables cooking. Last night, my Polish roommate made me pierogi. In the morning, an English girl drinks her Padre coffee and I smile at the familiar aroma.

I grew up on a farm, and yet never was a proper farmer’s daughter. I preferred to stay clean and read my books indoors instead of playing around in the dirt with my dad. Today as I walked home, tromping around in my dirty hat and pants, I thought of dad and his love of the land. If he were alive today, I think he’d be laughing at me and proud that I finally was becoming a part of the earth and the food cycle. I think he’d be just as amused as I am that Carhartt is a fashion brand in Australia. I missed many opportunities to engage in farming with my dad, but I’m grateful for this chance now half-world away to understand why he felt the way he did.

Although a bigger paycheck would be nice.

3 thoughts on “Stepping on grapes is my jam

  1. Eliska, so much fun to read this and see what you’ve been up to. Interesting to hear what it’s like on the farm- nice you get to do it temporarily. I’m the same way, daughter of a farm girl but don’t know much about it! How fun to meet so many internationals and taste their cuisine. Make them sloppy joe’s or s’mores or something, haha. I bet it can be lonely at times, but that can help you process life. You’re a good writer, I flew through this post. Thanks for sharing! Marina Reynolds

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