88 days - farmwork in Australia (1)
88 days. Every backpacker who ever came to Australia on a Working Holiday Visa knows what this figure means: it is the minimum number of working days on a farm to be eligible for a second visa. I went through it too, twice, during my first stay in the country between 2016 and 2017. I still have very mixed feelings today about this period of my life, but one thing is certain, it marked me deeply and I’ll never forget it. Here’s the story of my first farmwork experience: picking strawberries at Caboolture in Queensland.
I arrived in Australia at the very end of June 2016. For several weeks, I did nothing but travel, criss-crossing the east coast of the country in the van I had bought in Cairns, in the north of Queensland. I lived to the rhythm of the sun, getting up early every morning without needing an alarm and going to bed at nightfall. I enjoyed this new freedom, letting myself be carried away by my desires of the moment, without a pre-established road plan. Gorgeous landscapes followed one after the other in a kaleidoscope of shimmering images, interspersed with evenings around a fire on isolated freecamps or the occasional night in a youth hostel. I took great delight in every mile I rode, the wind that whipped my face as I drove with the window open, the view of those straight ribbons of asphalt that seemed to stretch on forever.
After two months, I started to feel tired of this nomadic way of life. I wanted to find a place to stay longer, to resume a social life a little more advanced than the brief exchanges I had every once in a while with other travelers. I just arrived in Brisbane, about halfway between Cairns and Melbourne, the city where I planned to settle at the end of my road trip. It was the ideal region for a few weeks break before resuming my journey south. I was also very curious to embark on an experience that the majority of backpackers in Australia do: farmwork. It was the perfect opportunity to discover another facet of Australia, more rural, not necessarily more authentic but certainly just as tangible as the urban bustle of its metropolises or the tropical beauty of its beaches. It was experiencing life in the bush and confront myself with the reality of physical work where you do not count your hours. It was lifting the veil on a world that I didn’t know, in which it would never have occurred to me to evolve if I had stayed at home.
Among the travelers I had met since the beginning of my trip, many had worked on a farm at some point during their stay. I wasn’t the inexperienced newbie just arrived in Australia anymore, but each of these encounters gave me the impression that I was not yet completely part of the same clan as those who had passed three months of their stay picking bananas or cherries. There were those who had worked in a farm, and those who only travelled; there was a before and an after. The first days of work were going to be some sort of initiation rite, which I intended to pass.
With the unexpected help of Youri, a bald and very muscular man in his forties with a strong Eastern European accent who was staying in the same dorm as me in my hostel in Brisbane, I managed to get a job in a strawberry farm in Caboolture, about fifty kilometers further north. My first job in Australia! I arrived there on Sunday morning, ready to start the next day. If the surroundings were not lacking in charm (the Glass House Mountains, Bribie Island…), I quickly realized that Caboolture was nothing more than a satellite city, a dormitory town without a soul. It would probably not be there that I would experience the most hectic moments of my trip… I spotted a cheap campsite though where several other backpackers working in the area had taken up residence, and I decided to settle there too.
On Monday morning, at a quarter past six, I drove my van down a bumpy driveway leading to the farm where I was going to work. I parked next to a tin shed and turned off the engine. The day was barely breaking, it was cold in the semi-darkness of dawn and the grass was wet with dew. A morning mist enveloped the landscape, through which I could make out a row of eucalyptus trees blocking the horizon and masking the first rays of the sun, of which only a luminous halo could be seen. Nothing moved, and apart from the muffled cry of a few birds in the distance, there was no sound.
Suddenly, two white minibuses appeared on the driveway in a cloud of dust. They stopped a few meters from my van and about fifteen Asians in work clothes got out. At the same time, a stern-looking woman in her forties, dressed in worn jeans, a checkered shirt whose sleeves rolled up to her elbows, and a pair of rubber boots came out of the shed. She shouted a few orders to one of the Asian guys who quickly translated for the other members of the group, then she saw me and walked towards me.
“Hi. Are you the new guy starting today? Ok then follow this group, Nick will tell you what to do. Come and see me this evening before you leave, so I can give you the paperwork.”
And without further details, she turned and stalked back to the shed, leaving me alone and a little perplexed. I was about to follow the group of Asians who were heading to the opposite direction, when a dented gray 4×4 appeared and pulled up next to my van. A stocky, muscular boy a little younger than me and wearing a backwards cap and a very pretty girl with long blond hair got out. She smiled at me and spoke to me in English:
“Hello! Are you new? Where are you from?
-Hi! Yes, today is my first day. My name is Matthias, I’m French, and you?
-Oh, my boyfriend is also French! I’m Erica, I’m from Sweden.
-And I’m Thomas, said the boyfriend in question, shaking my hand. We have to hurry, picking is about to start and they don’t like us being late here.”
I followed them as we headed towards the end of a field where the group of Asians were already getting to work, led by a man in his thirties wearing an orange work vest with reflecting stripes and a cowboy hat. Along the way, Thomas briefly explained me what the work consisted in:
“The strawberries are planted in parallel rows. We use carts like the ones you see here, which are a little wider than the rows of fruit and open in the middle. You sit at the front, with your back to the field, your legs apart on each side of the rows and you pick up the strawberries while leaning on the ground. You put them in plastic crates in front of you, one for the good ones, another for the rubbish, those which are damaged and which can’t be sold. Never pick up those that are not yet ripe! And then you move the cart backwards by pushing on your feet. When you get to the end of a row, you bring your crates to the truck where they weigh them to find out how many fruits you have picked up, and you start again a little further.”
The principle was simple, but it very quickly turned out to be backbreaking work. The cart was heavy and difficult to manoeuvre. Sometimes it got stuck in loose dirt and I had to push with all my strength to get it going, and sometimes it would hit a rock, forcing me to get up to pull it out and losing my rhythm. I was constantly bent over, and within an hour my back began to hurt. Some strawberries were easily detached, but others were much tougher, and my quickly sore hands made me wish I had worn protective gloves. When I reached the end of my first row, the fastest were already finishing their second, but I was somewhat reassured to see that others were only starting it, including Erica who was just ahead of me.
After a long time, the woman who greeted me shouted to the crowd « Ok guys, 15 minutes break! ». I felt like I had worked for hours, but painfully realized that it was just past nine in the morning. The sun had dispersed the mist and warmed the atmosphere, and with the physical effort I was already sweating. I sat next to Jordan and Erica, in the shade of a tree.
“So, how are you feeling? she asked me in English.
-I’m aching all over, I said with a grimace. I think I’m going to have sore muscles for the rest of the week
-You get used to it quickly, replied Thomas in French. I had very sore legs and shoulders my first two days, but now I’m fine. Only the back pain stays longer.
-Until when do we have to work?
-Usually until four or five o’clock. It is the supervisors who tell us when we can stop, when we have finished all the plots they wanted us to do during the day.
-They don’t seem very friendly… I remarked
-It depends which ones. Nick the one here today with the cowboy hat is cool; Judy is bossy but not mean, and she leaves us alone most of the time. Every once in a while there is an Indian who looks nice at first sight but he’s actually quite deceitful and will not hesitate to make you start a whole row over again even if you have only forgotten a few strawberries. The worst one is Brett, the manager. He’s a real bastard. If you see him one day, beware and make sure you don’t leave any fruit. You can’t miss him, he’s always with his quad. A real bogan, an asshole from the bush who takes advantage of backpackers to get cheap labor!
-What about the Asians? Do you know them?
-No, and they don’t interest me. They are Indonesian I think, but practically none speak English, or very badly. It’s fine with me if they keep to themselves. We are here to finish our farmwork, in three weeks we will have done all of our eighty-eight days and we will head straight to the Gold Coast to enjoy the clubs and the beach!”
I didn’t really appreciate his attitude: he left Erica out of the discussion by speaking French without making any effort to translate to her, and there was a sort of disdain mixed with contempt in his voice that I hardly liked. But then Nick waved us back to work, and I didn’t have time to ask any more questions.
The rest of the day continued at the same pace, under an increasingly hot sun. I picked up hundreds of strawberries, some almost as big as my fist, and filled dozens of crates. I was gradually getting exhausted, and I had to stop several times in the afternoon to stretch my stiff back. We took another forty-five minute lunch break, and around 4:30pm Judy announced the end of the day. I stayed an extra 15 minutes to complete the row I had started, then went to see her to discuss my contract.
“Here are your papers, she said, handing me two stapled documents. There’s one for you, and one for us. Fill in everything there is to fill in, sign it and bring it back tomorrow with your banking information. Here we pay by yield, according to the quantity of fruit you pick: sixty-five cents per kilogram of strawberries, fifty-five cents per kilogram of rubbish. The salary is paid weekly, usually on Wednesday or Thursday. No questions ? Very well, then see you tomorrow and be on time!”
I did the math in my head. I had noted at each weighing the weight of the crates I had picked up, painfully arriving at a total of about one 150kg, barely a hundred Australian dollars. Not terrible for nine hours of work… I was going to need to seriously speed up to make this work profitable!
That first day had exhausted me, and I went to bed very early that night. The next morning, waking up at half past five in the morning was very complicated. For a moment, I was tempted to go back to sleep and drop this tedious job. After all, I didn’t come all the way to Australia to break my back in a Queensland farm; but I also came with the desire and curiosity to try new experiences and discover a new way of life, and there was no way I would give up on day one. At 6.30am, I parked in the same spot as the day before and went back to work, again picking up more strawberries in a few hours than I could eat in my life.
It quickly became a real routine. I got up at dawn, had a quick breakfast and drove to the farm. I spent the day hunched over the rows of fruit, listening to music to motivate me. My pace increased daily, and I quickly passed Erica. In the evening, when Judy or another supervisor announced the end of the day, I returned to the campground where I stayed north of Caboolture. I took a long shower, then I opened a bottle of beer and sat with the other backpackers who were staying at the same place and working in other farms in the area. Most of them were French, and I got along very well with one of them, Jordan, a football fan and fierce supporter of Olympique Lyonnais with whom I had long discussions every evening that invariably ended up focusing on that same subject. And then it all started again the next day.
After the first day, I hadn’t tried too hard to sympathize with Thomas and Erica, and they hardly ever spoke to me either, preferring to stay away from the group during break times. I did however chat a few times with one of the Asians, who called himself Tiger. He explained to me that he and his colleagues were actually Filipinos and not Indonesians, and that they had been in Australia for a few months with the objective of earning as much money as possible to send it to their relatives back home. There was a touching sympathy in his fairly basic English and in his way of calling me “brother”, and even if our conversations were neither very long nor very deep, I appreciated exchanging with him.
At the end of the week, I managed to pick 250kg of strawberries daily. It still wasn’t a lot compared to the amounts picked up by the fastest, among which was Tiger, but I was quite happy with myself. That’s where the troubles began.
On Sunday, the only weekly rest day, it rained continuously. On Monday, the waterlogged soil of the farm had become impassable for the heavy carts, and Judy sent us home by noon, exhausted and covered in mud. The sun came back on Tuesday, but the gloomy weather seemed to have had an impact on the growth of the strawberries and my daily production dropped drastically. In the evening, Jordan told me that he had been fired from the farm where he worked in Elimbah a little further north and that he and his girlfriend were going to leave the area the next day, much to my regret. On Wednesday I met Brett, as unfriendly as Thomas had described him. He arrived like a shot on his quad and began to inspect each of the rows on which we had just passed. Luckily I had just started mine and he didn’t stop next to me, but Tiger and several other Filipinos got copiously yelled at for forgetting a few strawberries and had to start over. And then finally, on Thursday, I received my payslip from the previous week.
By my calculations, I estimated I should get between 700 and 800 Australian dollars, but it turned out that I actually got paid precisely 683 dollars… from which I still needed to cut off 191 dollars of taxes. In the end, for six days and about fifty hours of extremely painful and physical work, I had received on my account a little less than 500 dollars (about 300 euros) or barely ten dollars per hour on average, less than half than the Australian minimum wage. It was the final straw; I had tried as much as possible, but I could not continue to work under these conditions for such a low salary.
On Friday, I went to see Judy at the end of the day to explain her that I wanted to leave. I feared her reaction, scared that she would lose her temper or refuse to sign the form certifying that I had worked on her farm and which would be useful to me if I ever considered applying for a second visa. But she did not seem surprised and she replied very kindly:
“No worries Matthias, it’s a difficult job and it’s not for everyone. Can you still come back tomorrow? This will give me time to prepare the paperwork you need.”
It was the very first time she called me by my first name, taking me by surprise; I had no idea she knew it. I accepted and came back on Saturday for a final day of work. After weighing my last crate, Judy wished me well and handed me the signed form, certifying that I had completed twelve days out of the eighty-eight necessary to obtain a second visa. Tiger greeted me warmly, while Thomas and Erica had slipped away without saying a word. I wouldn’t miss them.
Despite the difficulty of these two weeks of fruit picking, I have never regretted this period. I learned a lot about myself, about what I was able to endure, and especially about how lucky I was to be born in France, in a moderately wealthy family. I had never lacked for anything, we went on vacation every summer, I had been able to do long studies… I had had the luxury of being able to go on a trip abroad for a year, and when I started to work on a farm, I could afford to call it an “experience” and quit after two weeks simply because I was too tired. On the other hand, it is a real means of survival for many people. Tiger and the other Filipinos had been picking strawberries six days a week for several weeks without a break, much faster than me and without complaining because they needed even the modest money it brought them. Where I felt exploited, they earned more than if they had stayed in their home country, and none of them could afford to leave overnight like I did. I was aware of these privileges, but when I left Caboolture, it was without looking back.