88 dangerous days
A grieving mother describes the perils of Australia’s outback for working backpackers
The snakes and spiders might be a natural danger, but as a destination for a gap year student, Australia could hardly feel more secure. I’m sure most parents agree.
When my daughter arrived in Australia, I breathed a sigh of relief. To my mind, she had arrived in a safe harbour, to a job she had sensibly arranged from the UK. It was a culture she was familiar with from watching Australian soaps and, like many Britons, she had extended family and friends in the region who could rescue her should she face financial difficulties.
In Home Hill – a small town 100 kilometres south of Townsville – she took on a farm job hoping to extend her stay under the government’s second-year working holiday visa scheme. She cleared cane fields of the large stones that damaged farm machinery, a back-breaking and boring job in the punishing Queensland heat.
Four days after she arrived at Home Hill, Mia was dead.
Australia proved a harsher destination than I had ever envisaged, and this reality was brought home in the cruellest way imaginable. My 20-year-old daughter, Mia Ayliffe-Chung, was murdered last year while staying at a hostel in rural Queensland. She travelled the world in safety, only to be killed in a country we had both initially thought of as so similar to our own.
Last week’s news of a female British backpacker being rescued by police from an abusive kidnapper in Queensland has probably shocked many – especially those whose children are currently in Australia or planning to go this year.
For many it was a reminder of Mia’s death, and I was once again inundated with requests for statements from the press, keen to make a link between the two stories. The two girls’ scenarios were different, of course, and it’s too soon to draw conclusions or direct comparisons, but the obvious link was their unforeseen vulnerability.
Mia’s travels were planned meticulously between us with her safety in mind. I followed her – through social media and frequent phone conversations – every step of the way. And since I’d travelled extensively myself I was able to give her advice all around the world: if you need anything I’m only a phone call away; dress as you see the locals dressing, cover up, including your arms and legs where appropriate; be respectful of other cultures, be observant of their customs; seek out groups of travellers and never EVER get into a vehicle alone with a stranger.
For once she was listening to her Momma, and I was happy to see from photos she posted on social media that she followed my advice to the letter.
While her murderer was not Australian, but a French backpacker, I believe her death would not have occurred had she not joined the Australian government’s second working holiday visa scheme – 88 days of agricultural work to extend her visa another year.
This is the scheme on offer to young travellers from Commonwealth countries, and France, Germany, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, allowing them to extend their visas but more importantly for the Australian government to plug a supply gap in labour to a crucial industry. Effectively, they are carrying out an Australian’s dirtiest work for them, in the most remote and inhospitable areas.
In theory, it is a way for young people to experience another side to the country and as such it is touted as a “cultural exchange”. But as I have discovered, the scheme is so badly run it often amounts to little more than modern-day slavery for these young adults. Bluntly, it is exploitative and unsafe.
The jobs – anything from fruit-picking to working with animals – are advertised online, and so young people accept work in rural areas that may take a 14-hour bus ride to reach. Destinations with bad reputations include Mildura in Victoria and Gatton and Bundaberg in Queensland.
Parents often don’t understand how isolated their children will be. Internet and mobile-phone coverage are not a given and Greyhound buses stop in town maybe once a day.
At their destination they are forced to book into the farmworker hostels that have sprung up in response and charge $150 to $250 a week. They sleep in mixed dorms, which are often filthy and infested with bed bugs (sometimes even rats), and are known to contain fire hazards.
Employers themselves often take advantage of the system by paying next to nothing – I have heard of dollar-an-hour wages, well below the minimum wage. And if the backpackers submit forms to immigration that include work paid below the minimum wage, they are ineligible for second-year visas even after completing their 88 days.
The verbal and even sexual abuse and harassment of young workers can be non-stop, and young women in particular are at high risk. It is not uncommon for passports to be confiscated by employers (a known indicator of modern-day slavery).
When Mia left home in September 2015, I – like other parents – knew nothing of all this. Instead I was excited for my daughter. Mia had dreamed of travelling since she was 14 and saved hard until she knew she could afford to go at age 20.
Certainly, when we pored over atlases together looking at the route she planned to take for her gap year, I did have my concerns for her safety. Mia could light up a room when she entered it and she attracted attention not just through her looks but through her vivacity and quick wit. And I knew this was a double-edged sword, as likely to attract jealousy and desire as friendship. But as a seasoned traveller myself, I felt that my beautiful girl would be looked after by the people attracted by her charm.
Much as I wanted Mia to live her dream and travel the world, I was relieved when she arrived at her destination in February 2016. There had been a couple of minor incidents en route: she had been out of contact in Morocco for three days, resurfacing to tell me she had taken up a spontaneous chance to ride a camel in the Sahara; and having bailed her out financially in Thailand, I learnt much later that she had also lost her passport and had turned up in Australia on a special Foreign Office permit.
But Mia settled down happily to a job at Bond University in Brisbane and found herself a further job at a nightclub. She moved into a share house with a view of the beach. She was having such a good time that I was not surprised when she told me she was going to embark on the 88 days of agricultural work so she could spend a second year down under.
As soon as I went out to bring Mia home, I realised that the way backpackers were being forced to live must have had a contributory effect.
As I asked around her friends, I discovered it was like the Wild West out there. I was told of an employer accused of rape but allowed to carry on offering work to young women afterwards. He is facing trial next month for the rape of another backpacker. Then there was the crystal meth—taking famer who housed his workers in caravans, one of which he burnt to the ground in a terrifying night seared into the memories of all the young backpackers who witnessed it.
And a typical account I received through a desperately concerned mother of a young girl currently completing her 88 days:
I travelled to the farm after being reassured on the phone there was plenty of work for me. There was a bed reserved and rent was $160 a week. Upon arrival I was told of the $300 bond needed in cash and explained the rules, including a fee of $10 a day to drive you to the farm. I was then told it could take a while for there to be work available to me, worst case 2 weeks waiting. 12 bunk beds crammed into a room adjoined to multiple other rooms via what used to be closets and cluttered storage areas. After speaking to people I was told I would more than likely be here for more than the 3 months. Some had been there for almost six months as the work is spread out to a couple of days a week to keep you there for much longer paying full rent. I had to sleep on a mattress 2 inches thick which provided no protection from the old wood of the broken bunk bed, each morning I would wake up itchy and covered in peculiar bites. There was no clear escape route from any of the bedrooms in case of a fire, one door at each end of the house which was set out like a maze. I had one shelf for my belongings to which would always be misplaced and often go missing and a box on the shelf which over time became an ant colony. Three showers and three toilets to service more than 25 of us in the house. No pots and pans or bare essential cooking or cleaning provisions.
I was lucky to be sleeping in the house; two girls arrived after being told they had a bed to then be told they were to sleep in their car and pay $100 a week for the privilege. The house was old and dirty, cockroaches in the bed and on the walls was a normality. ‘Lights off’ was at 10pm, if we were outside the house after that time the owner would become irate and once sprayed us with a hose.
The drivers to the farms were other backpackers who paid a little less rent for doing drop offs. One day one of the minibuses was pulled over and asked about their insurance and licences; the police informed us this was an illegal taxi service and the backpackers were not driving with the correct legal requirements. We were given our buckets, told the best type of chillis to pick and dropped off in the middle of the field. No Health and Safety induction was provided and I knew of some girls lost the skin on the tips of their fingers.
There were no toilet facilities so we would have to go in the field where we were picking. Even during our periods we would have to go there and then.
The packing jobs were a little more luxury, inside the warehouse out of the heat and with toilets. Everyone coveted these farms and were incredibly jealous of the lucky chosen few. Tensions were often high within the hostel, because of this competition and the close confines of the living quarters, and the owners had their “favourite” backpackers who paid less rent for doing odd jobs and who always got placed on good farms. The atmosphere could turn nasty.
Another story from a male backpacker:
I was speaking with a hostel employee promising me farm work in Mildura. I had telephone conversations with her and shared emails. Myself and my friend made a nine-hour train journey from Melbourne. After arriving and paying $250 rent each to stay in a small caravan (which was in an enclosure with other caravans) with two other backpackers, we were taken to do our shopping of which they got two weeks’ worth of food. After this we were told “ok you’re here, but we need to find you work, pay $250 each”.
So that’s over $1000 in the first few hours of getting there, not to mention the food and train ticket. We were isolated and felt we had no choice.
After three days of picking oranges and filling up massive bins for $20 a bin we returned to the caravan. Frustrated with the English girl for lying to us about the farm, my friend asked her about why she had done this in front of the group, at which she rang the farmer and said my friend had hit her (again part of the con). Not long later the farmer turned up with security and asked them to leave or he would call the police. We said we wouldn’t leave without being given our money back.
The police were called and my friend was removed from the farm and my partner went with him. In total we lost $1200 for rent and food and then were not paid the three days of wages. After speaking with the police they said they were aware of the situation but couldn’t do anything!
My mum had to put money in a bank account so that we could pay for our ticket back to Melbourne.
It is clear there is a total lack of supervision and regulation of the second-year working holiday visa scheme, which should offer protection to young itinerant workers.
In Britain, we have already seen this type of exploitation of migrant workers challenged and legislated against. After the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockle-picking disaster when at least 21 Chinese workers died having been brought to the UK illegally, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) was established. The GLA protects vulnerable and migrant workers through a set of standards that cover health and safety, accommodation, pay, transport and training.
I am aware that the Australian government is looking into this sector with a view to making changes, but that cannot happen soon enough for the young people already out there. I have recently learnt that there are people in government trying to block these changes: I believe that Senator David Leyonhjelm is working with the federal government to scrap the public register of employers who are employing people on temporary visas.
These are small steps, but they are building blocks on which greater reform could depend on in the future, and while the register is far from ideal, it is a step towards greater employer transparency.
We are already following up test cases and have funded a young mother’s visa application after she was sexually harassed and left unable to work while trying to fulfil her 88-day requirement.
What I want most is to warn other parents of what is really happening in Australia.
I have barely begun to grieve for my daughter. I have yet to visit Home Hill where she died. Yet I believe you cannot stop children going on gap years – nor should we. Travel is an important part of education.
Until there are serious changes to the Australian system, I would urge any young adult to avoid the 88-day scheme. Go to Australia for 365 days of fun, sun, adventure and laughter. And then when your visa is up, move on. There is so much to see and do in that part of the world, and Australia will always be there for a return trip in years to come.