Aussie farming community with notorious reputation
SCAMS, withheld pay and atrocious working and living conditions have earned one Aussie city a notorious reputation among backpackers looking to extend their visas through farm work.
The agricultural hub of Mildura in Victoria is a popular place for young, overseas tourists to flock in a bid to complete their mandatory 88 days of labour if they want a second year in Australia.
However, a young filmmaker - who was subject to bizarre sexual taunts during her own stint as a farm worker in another part of Australia - said social media and travel blogs were filled with backpacker horror stories from their time in and around the city.
"It had become a bit notorious within the (backpacker) community," British filmmaker Katherine Stoner told news.com.au.
"If a backpacker said they were going to work in Mildura there would often be another backpacker who had heard a horror story or had one themselves.
"The big issues were usually of not getting paid, like at all, for weeks worth of work. There were also stories of hostels being in disgusting conditions, issues with drugs and such.
"I once heard a story of a hostel throwing backpackers out in the middle of the night because of an argument or something. That obviously would put the backpackers in a dangerous situation."
The town's reputation had become so infamous, Ms Stoner decided she would visit the city - for the first time - as part of a soon-to-be-released investigative documentary, 88 Days which looks broadly at the issue of backpacker exploitation in Australia.
"There's also the issue of hostel owners misleading backpackers, encouraging them to come to Mildura saying they have work, then the backpackers come and there's no work," she said. "They spend all their money on rent and are waiting around for work. They then can't leave because they've spent all their money on rent. It becomes a situation backpackers can't get out of."
CLEANING UP ITS ACT
However, from her visit, Ms Stoner said some of the most notorious contractors appeared to have moved away and it looked as if the city was making steps to improve its reputation.
"We met with one farmer in Mildura who was treating his backpackers great," she said. "I think there are dodgy hostels all over the country, and Mildura obviously had a bit of a bad run with them. The backpackers we spoke to seemed to be content enough, although we still did hear a couple of issues in Mildura."
Her team met with a local councillor Glen Milne who said Mildura Rural City Council was working to clean up the town's image among the backpacking community.
However, he said in the documentary the council did not have enough power to fight the bad hostels, since they have to give notice to a hostel before they give an inspection, the hostel owners usually clean up and by the time of the inspection everything's in order again.
Robert Mansell, director of Coligan's Mansell Farms, allowed the crew to film his business in action and let employees speak with the filmmakers.
He had concerns the film would portray Mildura as a hotbed of seediness - which would scare off backpackers. However, Ms Stoner said it was clear from her time there that wasn't the case at his farm - as the backpackers appeared to be happy and enjoying their stay.
Mr Mansell told a local newspaper, the Sunraysia Daily there were some local "crooks" hiring backpackers, however Cr Milne said a lot of underhanded operators had been weeded out in the past four years.
"I'm not hearing as many reports as I was three to four years ago, but that's not to say there aren't any," Cr Milne told the newspaper.
News.com.au has contacted several of the city's councillors and the chamber of commerce, however they have not responded to requests for comment.
'THE WORST HOSTELS I'VE EVER SEEN'
In 88 Days, which is due to be released in the next couple of months, Ms Stoner travels across Australia and uncovers some disturbingly shocking living and working conditions.
"In South Australia we saw one of the worst hostels I've ever seen," she said. "There was no running water, they showered in dirty lake water and drank rain water. There was a rat infestation, and no locks on doors. I couldn't believe backpackers were staying there."
She also said the majority of women she spoke to had some experienced level of sexual harassment during their time on Aussie farms.
"There are definitely great farms and hostels out there, there's just far too many that are exploiting backpackers," Ms Stoner said.
"I don't think the situation is getting any better. There is definitely a lot more awareness of the issue, and we even met backpackers who are standing up and speaking out more and more. But on the farms and in the hostels themselves, I get the impression none of them want to change."
Ms Stoner's documentary is not even finished yet, but she has still received a barrage of abusive messages from disgruntled Aussies after talking to news.com.au about her experiences last year.
However, Ms Stoner said she also received a lot of positive messages and she hasn't been put her off making her film by the negative messages. "If anything they've made me more determined," she said.
MS STONER'S STORY
Aged 18, Ms Stoner wanted to spread her wings and explore before settling down into university life and jetted off to Sydney with her best friend.
"I wanted to go to Australia to travel and work on the other side of the world," she said. "But when we landed in Sydney, we found it hard to find work.
"We were both 18 with little experience and qualifications. So, we were applying for jobs in bars and cafes but we weren't getting anywhere."
It was then the young Brits saw adverts online for farm and fruit-picking jobs in the bush.
"It seemed really easy. All we had to do was email them and they said, 'Come on over,'" said Ms Stoner.
The pair packed up and jumped on an eight-hour train ride.
"We got work pretty quickly and, within a few days of being there, we were in the fields picking peaches," she said. "There was about 10 of us in total.
"It was long hours and long days in the sun, but the pay was OK so we didn't mind.
"But it didn't take long until we had picked all the peaches and the work ran out.
"He (the farmer) told the others that the work had dried up but for some reason he asked just me and my friend to stay on if we wanted.
"He would give us odd little jobs like trimming trees and that was when he started to get really weird.
"My friend and I were out picking peaches alone in the field on a really scorching, sweaty day and he came over. He said we should work naked."
Ms Stoner said the farmer then left but returned five minutes later asking why the pair hadn't taken him up on his offer.
"We just didn't know how to react," she said. "We were just 18 in this field alone with this man with nobody else for miles around. I was really shook up by it.
"We just held on to the end of the day and quit the next day."
Hoping the experience was just a one-off example of a bad employer, the pair stuck around for more farm work which came soon after.
They landed a two-week gig cleaning muddied garlic on a conveyor belt for 10 hours a day with eight other female backpackers.
"The farmers were shouting at us, telling us to work faster," Ms Stoner said. "But, after a few days, then one of the older farmers picked up a garlic with these long green leaves and he started lightly tapping one of the girl's bare legs.
"He then started circling us and gave us all a cheeky smack on our legs. He knew he could get away with it."
The pair said they were too scared to report the behaviour to the police and thought it was just part of farm work for backpackers.
"We've heard of so many backpackers who have gone through similar experiences - they've heard farmers being racist or verbally abusive," said Ms Stoner.
"I have even heard about instances of backpackers being physically assaulted by farmers."
- The documentary film 88 Days is currently in post-production. For details: click here.