Imagine if you will a 5 foot nothing wisp of a girl glowering up at a vine branching out a foot above her head. Now imagine hearing Hulk Hogan growl in anger from her mouth as she pulls with all her might on vines whose tendrils have wrapped a death grip around the wires and refuse to budge. Her pants are drenched from trudging through weeds still wet from the weekend rain, her boots are covered in the mud she sank through five minutes after starting her shift trying to push a stuck car free, and her socks have now been drenched for six hours because her boots aren’t waterproof. Every time you pull off your headphones, you hear someone from somewhere across the patch, seething with pure hatred: “FUCK. THE. VINES!”
Now imagine that this day was the easiest day all week.
This week has been the most demoralizing and aggravating week of our time paying our dues to the Australian government in the form of farm work.
This week, an agricultural union also petitioned the government to revoke the working holiday visa because this country is too reliant on backpackers for harvest labor, and also all labor is dignified so out of work Australians would happily pick up the slack during coronavirus.
Yes, I laughed with humorless mirth when I read that article.
There is nothing dignified about this.
There is nothing dignified about living in a hostel that needs a new roof, new plumbing, new wiring, and insulation to even be considered hospitable – and paying $800 a month for the privilege of it. You really think an Australian would pay double rent for a few months, because the work isn’t consistent enough to give up your real home?
There is nothing dignified about not knowing how much your labor will be paid that day until after you’ve been working for a few hours, because each patch is different. You really think an Australian is going to be willing to risk getting paid less than minimum wage for days on end if they happen to get a row that makes you cry just to look at it?
There is nothing dignified about having your “training” for each new task be a grand total of 45 seconds and three examples – but then perpetually getting told that you’re doing something wrong. You really think an Australian would be willing to go back and walk their rows again unpaid because someone in your group consistently did the task horribly wrong and you should have done it right the first time, so you’re not getting paid for this?
There is nothing dignified about the bruises on our bodies or cuts on our face from the vines protesting their movements.
There is nothing dignified about losing working time in 45-minute chunks because you have to drive, unpaid, back and forth between farm sites because the upper management is so disorganized that they don’t remember which farm has enough work for you to do that day.
There is nothing dignified about not knowing until 8pm the night before if you’ll be working at 6:00 the next morning.
There is nothing dignified about spending four and a half hours on a single row, only to learn that it’s supposed to be an “easy” row so you only earned $50. (Again, keep in mind Australian minimum wage is $19/hour, and with piece-rate loading we should be comfortably earning $24/hour). And oops, you signed a contract that said you aren’t guaranteed minimum wage, so tough beans.
I’ve finally, barely, crossed over the halfway mark. Everyone seems to be getting more and more short-tempered. I heard more than one backpacker today wonder much more seriously if Australia is really worth it. One person whispered in defeat, “I want to go home. I want to go back to my mom.”
I’ve worked with many people throughout my life. This batch is hard-working and determined. Sure, there’s a few slackers, but the overwhelming majority wakes up every day and strives to do their work well and get as much done as possible. People encourage each other and do what they can to make each other’s lives just a little bit easier.
But this life? It is designed to drag you down. We are the migrant workers whose only option to stay in this country is to work here. With the coronavirus lockdown, we cannot leave the state and most farms have completely closed their doors to prevent outsiders from bringing in the virus. So what are we to do? It’s not as though the government would listen to us – my story is far, far from the first. There have been news articles and petitions. But so what? In normal times, if we were to leave there would be 20 backpackers to take our place. The government knows our conditions – heck, we know our conditions. We know that we are even lucky to be here, because at least here we get weekly payslips and they follow the laws about taxes and superannuation.
We knew what we were getting into.
We knew that we were getting into three long, miserable months of backbreaking work and little pay.
And now you know.