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Melanesian fruit pickers in Australia: the true grim story

PETER KRANZ | In Conjunction with Melanesian Fruit Pickers

Fruit pickerIT TOOK A LONG, LONG TIME to get off the ground and it was launched with many fine promises.

It is the Pacific seasonal worker scheme and it offers a special visa to come to Australia to work on a farm for a few months.

It all sounded great. It presented an opportunity to experience life in rural Australia. It provided the chance to save money for the family back home. One thousand dollars a week was promised.

It was suggested that living conditions would be fine and that Australia would be welcoming.

Indentured labourers in QueenslandWell, the reality has turned out to be quite different. Think early 20th century, Queensland canefields and indentured labour (pictured).

The fruit pickers who assisted with this article arrived 50 km from nowhere and discovered their accommodation to be a dilapidated caravan from the 1960's. They had to pay for this.

There was no air-con and no mobile phone reception, the only amenities being a two- ring gas cooker, a flea ridden bed and a shared toilet block.

So this is life for the fruit pickers enticed to back o’ beyond Australia on special visas.

And these visas are hard to secure. "We want your passport; your immigration permit; your birth certificate; your police clearance."

You quickly realise that where you’ve been assigned is not some Gold Coast paradise. You can't go anywhere as you are two hours drive from the nearest town.

There are less facilities than you'd expect in a PNG village; the heat is 45 degrees, and you have to work 10 hours a day, six days a week to earn even half of what you were promised.

And you’re surrounded by flat desert - the monotony broken only by the odd irrigation channel which at least carries the smell of water.

You work pretty much from sunrise to sunset. You are surprised to realise you are paid only by picking enough fruit to fill a bucket the size of a tea chest - which earns you about $10. It is piecework.

On a good day you may fill five of these - but it depends on the fruit and the conditions. The heat is tremendous - beating down on your head, if you break for water it will lose you money.

At around 8pm you get back to the caravan exhausted and too tired to prepare food - so you crunch on some Twisties, collapse to the smelly old mattress and fall into unconsciousness.

Next morning it's up at 6 to repeat the same process, until Sunday when you get the day off to attend church. But of course you don't earn any money on Sunday.

Maybe you can catch a bus to town and spend a few dollars on provisions and an ice cream. So how much does that leave left for your family? $200-300 for six days of backbreaking, heartbreaking, desolate, dry-as-hell, hot-as-Hades work for some Australian farmer.

This is the reality for seasonal fruit pickers in Australia in a scheme lauded by the Australian government as an innovative breakthrough program. Maybe colonialism was better.


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James Taylor

The fruit pickers are really hard working. They never say I can't do. I salute those who are working in fruit picking.

Jo Cooper

Peter, apologies for commenting late. Can I suggest forwarding your comments to Landline and Radio National to widen the discussion and coverage?

Also, some other links that you may wish to follow up on:
Legal Aid Victoria - adding this fyi but I don't think your issue is covered in this instance - I think they'll push you onto the Fair Work Ombudsman

But there's also the Community Legal Centres where you may be able to obtain free advice

And then there's the Law Institute of Victoria, in which the experience you outlined may be of interest to PILCH - the Public Interest Law Clearing House.

Peter Kranz

Another update. The caravan rent is $60 per week per person, plus another $20 (each) for electricity.

Last week there was a raid by Immigration. The visa overstayers and illegals were tipped off and disappeared into the bush.

Even the Aussies had to show their passports and prove their identity.

Peter Kranz

Peter - you are right. One example from one farm doesn't condemn the whole scheme.

But I assure you what I wrote is true.

Peter McGlynn

If indeed this article is accurate it should have been titled"Melanesian Fruit Pickers in Australia: One true grim story". I have first hand reports from Melanesian pickers in a different part of Victoria who are also working hard but earning more than the article reports, averaging $600 per week. They are generally enjoying their experience & although accommodation is basic & crowded, they commented on the "United Nations" of pickers from all corners of the globe & the fact that many others were more experienced and were hence earning more than the Melanesian crew. Sounds like conditions & wages vary a lot. If indeed minimum wages & conditions have been breached then this should be reported. Incidentally, many of the workers are illegal overstayers & move on regularly to avoid detection.

Ila Ori

Those government departments within PNG especially the Department of Labour have a duty and responsibility to review and evaluate this scheme so as to address such issues as highlighted.

Peter Kranz

I will give names and addresses to the appropriate authorities once my wife is clear of this place.

Peter Kranz

Update from Rose. The fruitpickers are getting increasingly frustrated. Their net income is lucky to exceed $300 a week.

Yesterday the farmer upbraided them all - Koreans, Japanese, Pacific Islanders and PNG workers, and called them 'black bastards' because they weren't working hard enough.

They did not understand this and had to have it translated. Then there was almost another Eureka stockade incident until the farmers' heavies restored order.


Dave Ekins

Perhaps the original article could have been headed "a true grim story" rather than "the true grim story". This would have balanced it against the the numerous good news fruit picking stories that are out there, and would certainly have evoked more sympathy and outrage over the conditions endured by our Melanesian brethren in this particular instance.

Peter Kranz

I was trying to keep it anonymous but it doesn't matter now, as Rose has had enough and wants to come home.

She's lucky - she has an Australian home to return to. But her friends are not so privileged.

They don't tell you that you have to pay to travel to your place of work. And a bus ticket from Sydney to Mildura is $183.

And a flight back to PNG on top of that?

Peter Kranz

OK you cynical buggers in your armchairs, my wife Rose is working fruitpicking at this very moment 50 kms from Mildura and gives me regular reports on the conditions she and her friends are experiencing.

Happy now?

Harry Topham

Paul - As the animal concerned appears to be of a rather ornery nature, one must be sure that ones feet are firmly placed in the stirrups before setting off otherwise a one might come a cropper.

Sometimes before taking off, reaching down and giving the ears of the cantankerous animal a good tweaking can bring it to heel

Sitting in comfy high chairs can also pose a potential peril due to their instability attributed to their high centre of gravity, which if rocked too strongly can cause them topple over.

To the issue: The matter raised is nothing new with regular exposé of similar events regularly broadcast by various TV current affairs programs.

If my memory serves me correct a similar scenario to that outlined by Peter was recently aired by one of the commercial TV stations.
In that case it related to the exploitation of Korean guest workers by the subcontractors involved in the fruit picking industry.

In this case the issue was referred to the appropriate governmental agency and resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.

It would seem that in this case, the PNG workers concerned are reluctant to air their grievances publicly possibly influenced by their perceived beliefs that retribution may result

If this is the case engaging the services of a suitable advocate might seem to be the appropriate course of action.

The editor's view is that, as this is a scheme entered into by the federal government in conjunction with Pacific governments (that is, it is an official not a private or individualised scheme) Bob Carr, Richard Marles and DFAT should be ensuring that the way in which our Melanesian friends are treated is up to par. If first hand accounts point to workplace abuses, they should be invetigated at that official level. Melanesian workers cannot be expected to comprehend the workplace laws of Australia, nor be able to afford legal advocacy - KJ

Ross Wilkinson

Sorry Kevin, but I agree with Paul. Under every evidentiary principle in Australia, this is hearsay and would not be allowed to stand as it is presented.

Yes, we have to take Peter's word but until properly corroborated, it can only be viewed with a grain of salt.

Also agree with Harry that if employment conditions established through the Australian Government have been breached then that breach must be reported.

Who Kevin? KJ

Paul Oates

Are we to understand then that this article relies on hearsay?

If the parameters of a contract have in fact been broken then as Harry suggests, those involved should be encouraged to report any breaches to the authorities.

To not report any claimed abuse, but by inference denigrate Australia, only raises questions about perspectives and motives?

The article in question is not reliant on hearsay but makes it very clear it has been written from first hand accounts. In all of journalism, there is no account better the the first hand. Neither there questionable motives. Off the high horse, Paul - KJ

Peter Kranz

Please note, I reported this fairly and squarely from first-hand accounts of people close to me who are fruit picking right now in NW Victoria.

I cannot reveal names or other details as they asked for confidentiality, which we must respect

I believe that a fair reading of the article shows that these people are working under extremely difficult and oppressive conditions.

They are not backpackers or tourists who may come and go as they please, but Melanesian workers desperate to earn money for their families back home, enticed here by official Australian government policy, endorsed by several other Pacific countries, including PNG.

I stand by the report.

Harry Topham

If these matters have validity invoking possible breaches of Industrial contracts then the matter should be referred to the relevant Govt Minister and if such action is not acted upon then should be brought to the attention of a reliable media outlet.

Most fruit pickers I have met work 10 hour days and advise, depending upon crop picked, average earning of $150-$200 per day they also advise that anyone who can not meet this work standard should look for alternative employment in another industry

Henry Ume

Can we get feedback from the people that spent time on this scheme. only then the true picture will be revealed.

Mrs Barbara Short

Landline, the ABC's TV program on life in the country areas, recently had a good program on these Pacific Islander fruit pickers, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves and they stated how it gave them money to send home to their families.

Paul Oates

This highly emotive article lacks one single fact as to when, where and who it claims to be reporting on.

Colin Huggins

I am not sure really what Peter is talking about. I go to Young at least once a year and I seem to be always there when the fruit pickers are in the town.

They come from all around the world, have the time of their lives, intermingle with the locals at pubs, sporting venues etc. Spend money they have to eat.

They bring revenue into the town, get a taste of rural Australia and then move on.

I have never heard one of them bemoan the weather or the lifestyle. After the cherry and other fruit are picked, off they go to the next place.

Some of them end up seeing the whole of Australia, and they are on working visas. Plus they pay Australian taxes on their earnings. They have the time of their lives.

Vincent Mycoe

Re fruit picking visas. That's how it is for anyone, locals or backpackers.

There's no milk or honey left here onetok.

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