TWO months ago I was lured to a rural town in New South Wales, Australia, and tricked into working as an illegal labourer while a contractor stole the money I was told I was making.
As disheartening as these few days of apparent slavery were, they were nothing compared to the months of distress, danger and deceit that surrounded them.
In order to obtain a second year on your 417 Working Holiday Visa and remain Down Under a little longer, backpackers are required to complete 88 days of regional work. Which, well, I've discovered is something easier said than done.
Since I set out on this mission of desperation, I haven't just seen first hand how young travellers are targeted online by false advertisements, stolen of their savings to secure non-existent work and then left stranded in the most remote of places. I've bloody lived it.
My diary of these days, with the stories I've learned along the way, may seem somewhat depressing, but it could be much worse. The simplest Google search into this side of travelling isn't shy of stories of backpackers quite literally being worked to death while chasing that second year. It's scary, shocking and simply just sad to see that a system with such promise, is plagued by so many people actively taking advantage.
THE DIARY OF MY (NOT QUITE) 88 DAYS
Featuring the good, the bad and the banter while trying to live my best life.
JUNE 11, 2017: DAY 1/88
'This can't be it?' I thought, as I was dropped at a working hostel in Batlow, NSW. An old hospital converted into cheap accommodation, which was recommended by the contractor I'd secured work pruning apple trees with. After paying a $100 bond, plus my first week's rent, I started to explore. The upstairs is blocked off with signs shouting the word 'asbestos,' the main street has one shop and the tiny town is surrounded by snowy mountains, farms and vast stretches of fucking nothing. A big shock to this city boy.
JUNE 15, 2017: DAY 5/88
There's a group of us here now and we're yet to start working. The minimal contact from our contractor fills us with no confidence; and it feels like our early arrival is a ploy for people to profit from us renting rooms? Hmm
JUNE 17, 2017: DAY 7/88
A week without income may be a minor inconvenience to some, but it's big bloody financial stretch for most of us. We're poor AF. Plus we're in winter now, the hostel lacks heating and hot water is only occasional. There's no phone signal either, which sadly means I won't be Keeping Up With The Kardashians for a while.
JUNE 19, 2017: DAY 9/88
After a brief demonstration on how to prune a tree (actually kinda hard) and how to use a ladder (not so hard), we finally started work today. 'We tell you the price per tree afterwards,' our supervisor said. 'Piece rate' is standard practise in this game – and also really fucking annoying. Your pay is calculated by how much you pick, prune or whatever it is you're doing. Which basically means there's literally no way to predict if you'll even make rent.
JUNE 21, 2017: DAY 11/88
I thought I'd feel a bit like Hannah Montana living her double life while farming away, but I don't. It's just really exhausting.
JUNE 23, 2017: DAY 13/88
I managed to make $536 in my first week of work and I don't think I'll be fulfilling my dream of becoming the Paris Hilton of pruning anytime soon. It worked out I was making around $9 an hour. As we're only classed as 'casual workers' - we apparently have no rights to the Australian minimum hourly rate of $17.70.
JUNE 24, 2017: DAY 14/88
The competitiveness has begun after our supervisor passed round our payslips so everybody is aware of your earnings. The slowest workers are embarrassed, the fastest ones are feeling smug and surprisingly, I wasn't the shittest.
JUNE 25, 2017: DAY 15/88
I fell down a wombat hole today. Which, well, was inevitably going to happen. 'Be careful,' our supervisor advised, while watching us balance icy ladders over dangerous ditches at the bottom of trees we had to prune. Thanks, hun. All with a pair of sharp lobbers slung over our shoulders. Thankfully the wombat wasn't home at the time.
JULY 03, 2017: DAY 23/88
Today we were sent home after 30 minutes due to a storm which is scheduled to last all week. As we're all exhausted, freezing and afraid to speak up about the questionable conditions incase we're sacked – a day off is the dream. Until you remember you're not paid and it doesn't count towards your visa. Shit.
JULY 04, 2017: DAY 24/88
I don't actually recall the last time I had an erection. You know shit is bad when even your cock can't be bother rising for that awkward moment each morning. Shrivelled up as I sleep in a room many have failed to wake up in.
JULY 05, 2017: DAY 25/88
There's 12 of us in the hostel now and there's a real sense of camaraderie. We may not have much, but we have each other. A glimmer of hope for the hopeless. I imagine this is what it feels like to be in prison? United in the fact you're all fucked together.
JULY 08, 2017: DAY 28/88
There's now rats in the hostel and one touched my barefoot while I was making breakfast. Avocado with a side of vermin. I no longer have hope, I no longer want to be here in this hell and I no longer understand why it's called a working holiday visa. I've had nicer times in Preston (!!) than I'm having right now.
JULY 11, 2017: DAY 31/88
The rain lasted a while and I barely managed to make enough to cover food and rent last week. My savings are now shrinking and my 88 days look set to last a lot longer. We've also realised there's simply no system to how they work out how much each block of trees is worth. It's literally made up as we go along.
JULY 12, 2017: DAY 32/88
After a little slip from a soaking ladder and slap in the face from a few big branches, my nose is gushing with blood as I write this back on the minibus. I've been forced to take a break after the sight of face filled my supervisor with a stress I haven't seen before. Hopefully i'll get the rest of the day off.
JULY 13, 2017: DAY 33/88
I'm fine following my accident but today we've been told we're required to wear safety goggles from now on as 'a requirement' of the health insurance we're covered under. 'Does this mean we haven't been covered so far while not wearing them?' I asked my supervisor. A question that was ignored. Oh yeah, we have to pay for the goggles too.
JULY 14, 2017: DAY 34/88
Someone in our group was sacked for 'going too slow' today. To be fair, he was quite slow and I'd probably have sacked him too. I'm just glad it wasn't me. In unrelated news: today I also managed to masturbate. Such highs and lows.
JULY 18, 2017: DAY 38/88
Today I read a story about an appeal which the mother of British backpacker, Mia Ayliffe-Chung, has launched to 'make the 88 days farm scheme safer.' Her daughter, along with friend Tom Jackson, were both stabbed to death while completing their regional work by another backpacker they shared a room with.
JULY 20, 2017: DAY 40/88
The little family I've formed in the hostel has turned somewhat incestuous as people are now sharing bodily fluids as well as bedrooms. Inevitable, I suppose. As are the arguments, fall outs and fights which are starting to follow.
JULY 22, 2017: DAY 42/88
The more I think about Mia's tragedy, the more that also seems inevitable. There's only so much slave like labour, squalid living conditions and lack of basic human rights you can take before you break. A lethal combination for some, it sadly seems? We haven't worked for three days now and have spent most of this time huddled around a single heater in the hostel's TV room. There's nothing to do, nowhere to go and I'm afraid to cook due to the overwhelming anxiety the family of rats that have taken over the kitchen are causing me.
JULY 24, 2017: DAY 44/88
I haven't slept a full night for a week now due to a throbbing pain in my wrist and forearm. I've overworked myself into what my NHS employed mother is calling 'carpal tunnel.' The wrist strap I ordered online isn't easing the excruciating pain and I'm no longer able to masturbate – let alone prune fucking apple trees. 'Don't tell the supervisor about it,' I was advised. 'Last time someone said their back was hurting I heard that they were sacked.' We quite literally live in fear of not making it to that 88th day.
JULY 25, 2017: DAY 45/88
There's been lots of whispers around the farm that the work is going to end soon. Initially we were told we'd be pruning until the end of September - which meant we could (unhappily) complete our 88 days here. I asked the supervisor directly in front of the whole group. 'We have at least three, maybe four, weeks left,' she explained. Nothing to worry about.
JULY 27, 2017: DAY 47/88
Today we were sacked. Well, made redundant, to be technical. Around three hours into our working day we were informed that we were no longer needed and sent home. Three weeks turned into two days. The most annoying part? We've just paid a week's nonrefundable rent to continue living in this hell until next Monday. Thanks for the heads up.
JULY 28, 2017: DAY 48/88
The only silver lining to all of this? The people stuck in the same situation. It's inevitable you'll fall, but with these friendly faces filling the bunk beds next to you, it's hard to really fail. Well, for now at least.
JULY 30, 2017: DAY 50/88
This weekend a group of us from Batlow drove for two days up to Woolgoolga, NSW. It took fucking ages. I'd secured work for us picking blueberries after replying to an ad in a Facebook group set up for finding farm work - and we were all keen to swap the snowy mountains for some sunshine up the coast. The contractor also put us in touch with The Motor Inn where we'd reserved a double room for the week. 'This has worked out perfectly,' I thought, as we sat on the beach.
JULY 31, 2017: DAY 51/88
Instead of starting work today The Motor Inn attempted to evict us. 'You have to leave,' the receptionist demanded after I noticed someone had been in our room while we were out. 'You only paid for one night each,' she continued. Utter confusion. As we each produced a receipt for the $110 per head, which equated to a collective $660 for the week, she was still adamant that was the price per night. It's not the fucking Ritz, babe. While she stormed around the car park informing the owner on the phone that we refused to leave, I leant over the reception counter and looked at her log book. 'Joshua Fox group for 7 nights,' it stated. In her own hand writing. As I informed her of my discovery, she branded me 'threatening' and told me I'd broke the law by reading 'confidential documents.' If you don't laugh you'll cry.
AUG 01, 2017: DAY 52/88
We haven't started work yet and we can't find alternative accommodation. 'I only want Asian backpackers,' a local landlady responded to my enquiry about her guest house this afternoon. 'We can fit a lot more of them in.' As house shares and rooms are rented out per person sleeping in them, the more they can squeeze in – the more money they make. 'There's only six of you?' another landlady asked, as we viewed her single bedroom apartment. 'Last year we had a few more sleeping in the kitchen,' she continued, while expressing her desire to only rent to a larger group. With peak picking season about to kick in and the town population booming as each bus passes through, it now seems obvious why The Motor Inn wanted rid of us. They could make a lot more money if they removed all unnecessary furniture from our double room and replaced it with a million mattresses for a bigger group of mates.
AUG 02, 2017: DAY 53/88
The contractor who invited us the 1,000KM drive here, finally had us start work today. 'Be at this farm in 30 minutes,' he texted at 6:30AM with an address. Thankfully I'd already had my morning poo which meant the rest of our group could fight over the single bathroom as we rushed to get ready. Upon arrival we became slightly suspicious after noticing we were the only backpackers there. The other workers consisted solely of older Malaysian men who struggled to speak a word of english. Rather than being shown what to do, we were buddied up with the older guys and left to deal with the language barrier ourselves. 'This seems a bit odd,' a friend whispered as we started picking fruit before being told anything about payments or employment. 'Let's give it a go,' I responded.
AUG 03, 2017: DAY 54/88
Back at the blueberry farm today and became even more suspicious when we realised how they calculate the payments. 'That [bucket of berries] looks about 2KG,' the owner would guess, as we handed over our hard work. When you're paid by the weight of what you've picked, this seems a bit fucked? She then scribbled her guess down on a piece of paper next to your name, shouted at us for picking too slow and ignored our question: 'Why don't you buy some little scales to accurately measure what we pick?' They still haven't taken any of our bank details, visa documents or tax file numbers either. And any request for something official is simply ignored. This doesn't feel legit anymore.
AUG 04, 2017: DAY 55/88
The drama peaked today when we refused a third day of standing in the 30 degree sun for what we've worked out is approx $3 per hour. 'Come to the Motor Inn,' we texted our contractor, who was wondering why we hadn't arrived to work. A couple of other backpackers we'd met had also now told us they've been tricked out of a $200 deposit by the same man and never heard from him again. 'Is that farm even legal?' we demanded, as he arrived. 'This is just test farm,' he squirmed, while explaining; yes, it was technically illegal work, and no, the days worked there don't count towards our 88. He assured us we'd start on the 'proper farm' any day now – and also took our bank details to pay us what he owed.
AUG 05, 2017: DAY 56/88
We never received the payment the contractor promised us and he now doesn't respond to our messages. He lied about the legalities of the farm, made us work under false pretences and then stole all of our wages. Modern day slavery.
AUG 06, 2017: DAY 57/88
It's been a week since we left the hostel in Batlow and none of us have received our bond back. That's $600 for the group that we desperately need. The owner stated to me seven days ago it'd be looked into 'this week,' but no longer responds to any attempt at communication. The hostel's website states it'd be 'refunded upon departure.' It wasn't. A group of backpackers I reached out to online have stated they're still waiting to receive their $100 each after checking out five months ago. In a last desperate bid, I've tracked down the number of hostel owner's wife, who is also his listed business partner. 'How did you get this number?' she demanded, while swerving my questions about the missing money. After a heated exchange she stated 'us lot', aka backpackers, are 'all the same' and 'dishonest.' In the end, she promised all our bonds would 'be processed in the next few weeks.' Somehow, I doubt it.
AUG 07: DAY 58/88
We're now (even more) desperate (for money and a job) and there's a couple of farms being advertised in a town called Mildura, VIC. The place doesn't have the best reputation so I've reached out to one reviewer online to see what the deal is. After agreeing to work in her farming hostel, the backpacker, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells me: 'The owner refused to pay me what I was owned so I wasn't able to pay for food. In the end he offered to pay me in full if I slept with his girlfriend and him together. He didn't offer me a choice so I panicked, rang my mum in tears and fled to a bus in the middle of the night. I didn't have cash on me when I got to the bus but I explained my situation to the driver and he let me on without question. Thanks to his kindness I was able to escape, penniless but intact. Other friends I made stayed in other hostels in the area and not one person had a good thing to say about it.' We'll give that town a miss then.
AUG 11, 2017: DAY 62/88
We've managed to find a (legal) blueberry farm in Woolgoolga and have started working again. Despite internet reports informing us the company were 'ordered to back-pay $46,000 in unpaid wages and entitlements to nearly 140 seasonal workers' two years back, it's the best we have.
AUG 17, 2017: DAY 68/88
I no longer have a name and am simply referred to as 809 by the family who run the farm. Which is my 'picker number' and not how many people I've shagged. Unfortunately. To them, we're not people, we're numbers.
AUG 20, 2017: DAY 71/88
Two of our friends from apple pruning, James and Naomi, have come to join us in Woolgoolga and it's the boost we've all needed. There's only so long you can spend confined to sleeping, eating, working and then working out with the same people every single day, until you (naturally) start to feel suffocated. The blueberries have long defeated the batner and we've basically rolled the red carpet out like it's Kim and Kanye arriving. It may as well be. The most minor of things spark massive excitement when your life now lacks anything other than fruit.
AUG 22, 2017: DAY 73/88
I turned 26 today and celebrated by having the family dress in black and mourn what my life has become. I feel dead inside so it seemed oddly fitting to host my own funeral. We've now moved into a recently opened hostel called Woopi Backpackers, which is basically the only good thing we have going for us right now. Cleanliness, personal space and a place to hold on to my last bit of sanity. The owner, Sam, gave me a little gift and it felt oddly overwhelming to be treated with such kindness for the first time in such a long time.
AUG 27, 2017: DAY 78/88
I'm averaging around $300 a week in wages. Which, to put bluntly, is dog shit. Once I've paid rent and gas money to travel to work each day, I'm left with less than $100 for seven days of food.
AUG 31, 2017: DAY 82/88
You'd be surprised how many wrong ways there are to pick a blueberry. I, however, am not. As each shift in the sun is dominated by the demanding screams of our supervisors. 'Don't pick the green ones, don't pick the red ones, don't pick the soft ones, don't pick the small ones, don't fill your bucket up too much, don't do this, don't do that, don't smile, don't laugh, don't breathe.' And repeat. Mate, shut the fuck up and let us get on with it.
SEPT 07, 2017: DAY 89/88
Two hours into a shift today and I couldn't take it much longer. The screaming, the shit pay, the scorching heat. My mind is gone, my heart is empty and I feel nothing. I pulled a sickie, left my friends to power on and faced an 11KM walk back to the hostel alone as we only have the one car. I lay in bed crying when I got back and somehow ended up self-harming. I think it was simply to see if I'm still capable of bleeding? It seems I am still alive, just about. That's something I've never done before and it feels weird even typing it out hours later.
SEPT 09, 2017: DAY 91/88
My dearest boyfriend William has made a surprise appearance at the hostel. He's been facing the six hour drive from Sydney every few weeks and it's one of the only things that's kept me going. Plus the sex that obviously follows. He's Australian, we've been together a while now, and, in all honesty, he's the only reason I'm doing this. The thought of having to fly home in a few months and leaving him is breaking both our little gay hearts.
SEPT 12, 2017: DAY 94/88
We've been riding from the hostel to the farm each day with a 22-year-old Afghan bloke who has unexpectedly had to leave to rescue his girlfriend who is detained in immigration detention centre six hours away. Yep, I'm serious. A lovely chap with not much luck, it seems. A shit situation for all really as we're now unable to get to work each day without him.
SEPT 13, 2017: DAY 95/88
I can't drive and don't have a license but that didn't stop me doing a deal in a McDonalds car park with a dodgy lass off the internet and buying my very first car. 'It's recently been serviced,' the seller, who we chose simply cause they lived closest, explained. A desperate purchase split between myself and three other dudes.
SEPT 14, 2017: DAY 96/88
This morning we woke with genuine excitement at the thought of returning to work in our very own car. This was short lived after realising the battery was dead, the tyres need changing and the hand brake is fucked. We probably should have enquired how recent that service was. My guess is 1993. Once again, Sam, the hostel owner, proved his legendary status by helping us sort shit out.
SEPT 30, 2017: DAY 112/88
Today I spoke to a friend from home who attempted her 88 days in Queensland last year. 'I was at my farm for two weeks, spent almost two thousand dollars with the deposits they asked for and transport and everything and only worked one day,' she admitted. 'They just wanted our money and didn't give a fuck about us.' The lucky bitch has since found a job that'll sponsor her and is living it up in Sydney.
OCT 06, 2017: DAY 117/88
So close to the end now and so much fucking rain. There's also so many questions racing through my mind as we wait for the next dry day: Will I ever finish farming? What have I done to deserve this? Will they ever find Madeline McCann?
OCT 09, 2017: DAY 120/88
'All men in this section,' our supervisor stated while pointing at some blueberry bushes lining the steepest of hills. Still wet, covered in mud and slippy as fuck. 'It's too dangerous for ladies,' he continued. Get to fuck, I thought. Have you not heard of equality? Which no, he hadn't, after I quizzed him on the breakdown of gender discrimination and not being such an outdated dick. Thankfully a few feminists happily climbed up with us blokes and managed to work away without damaging their vaginas - like our supervisor had apparently feared.
OCT 11, 2017: DAY 121/88
There's a new boy in our dorm and he's from a rival farm. A fellow Brit with good banter and a welcome addition. The bloke has also managed to secure an hourly paid job at his place. Something unheard of in this scene as he'll actually be making minimum wage. My hero. 'Three people have died on this farm though,' he later claimed. Apparently over a span of 15 years. A booming bank balance beats the deadly danger of dehydration it seems.
OCT 14, 2017: DAY 124/88
Just went for a late night shower and stumbled upon my Italian friend consummating his romance with a Japanese girl from the hostel in the cubicle next to me. Well, it sounded like him. Sadly I'll have to wait until the morning to confirm.
OCT 15, 2017: DAY 125/88
I can confirm it was my Italian friend shagging away in the shower last night. Privacy is unfortunately not a privilege you have in while hostel living.
OCT 20, 2017: DAY 131/88
I'm depressed, drained and all kinds of defeated. But i'm also finally fucking done. I am writing this on a ten hour train back to Sydney and civilisation. And after so long stuck in such isolation, I'm not sure I'm ready for the bright lights again? I feel like one of them Amish kids in America that turn 18, discover cock and shun their little community for a carefree life of chlamydia and low paying customer service jobs in the big city. I'm not sure I'm ready to be a proper person again. I'm not sure I remember how to?
OCT 28, 2017: DAY 139/88
I applied for my second year visa today after gathering the appropriate evidence of the above and did I feel like a weight had been lifted? No. Instead I had to pay $440 for the privilege of applying. Plus a $6 credit card fee.
Is it really as bad as it sounds?
The reality is, a system designed to boost the Australian agricultural sector while subsequently encouraging tourism, has become a deadly trap due to a complete lack of regulation. There's been somebody stood waiting to take advantage every step I've taken while attempting to complete my 88 days. Which is exactly what they've proceeded to do. And I've been powerless to stand up, speak up and stop it because I need their signitures for my second year.
Backpackers stuck in this cycle are being abused and exploited each day, and until something is introduced to register employers, list legitimate job opportunities, safety check working conditions and monitor payments, nothing is going to change.
Rolling your sleeves up and spending a couple of months working in the sun seems a small price to pay to extend your stay in such a beautiful country? A genius idea, if we're being honest. After all, nothing in this life comes for free. But something so simple shouldn't leave so many people that are chasing a dream living a nightmare.
With special thanks to Felice, Will, Luca, Lucas, Manon, James, Naomi, Keisuke, Terry, Sharon, Sam, Emily and everyone else that helped me along the way. And also my dearest boyfriend William for constantly driving from Sydney to wherever the fuck I was just for a cuddle.
Follow my adventures on my travel blog at http://www.shitonmymind.co.uk and also my Twitter, Instagram and Facebook while you're at it. All images copyright Joshua Fox.