As soon as it became clear COVID-19 was going to wreak havoc, most backpackers hastily left Australia and made their way back home.
Fearing the nation’s fresh produce would be left to rot, the Federal Government and agriculture bodies lobbied young Australians to take up farming jobs instead.
Some farmers flaunted attractive wage figures, saying it was possible to make $3,000 per week, while Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack told teens regional work might make for interesting Instagram content, and even lead to finding “the love of your life”.
These Australians gave it a go.
Here’s how they went.
Work ‘enjoyable’ but hard
Nineteen-year-old Matthew Rolston bought a bus ticket from Hobart to northern Tasmania and had the full backpacker experience — even staying in a hostel.
His first ever fruit-picking job was “actually rather enjoyable” at first.
Not in the least because farm work can be physically demanding.
“I kind of went through half a bottle of water, realised there was nowhere to fill it up and had to ration half a bottle of water for the rest of the day,” he said.
In the state’s south, 14-year-old Chloe has just taken up her first ever job folding cherry boxes.
“Now that I was old enough to come to work, I decided I probably should earn a bit of money to keep me going thought the year,” she said.
Being on her feet all day and the heat of the packing shed can make for a challenging workplace, but Chloe has loved it.
“Yesterday I did 29,000 steps and that was 12 hours of work. I was ready for the end of the day,” she said.
Hostels cost more than wages earned
Things on the farm ended “rather sourly” for Mr Rolston when his wages for six 10-hour working days came through — three weeks after he first started.
“And then, when we did end up getting paid, we didn’t get the full amount,” he said.
“I was supposed to earn around $550, I ended up getting $450.
“There was no way that we’d be making over a $1,000.”
His friend Luka Wighton, who also worked on the farm, said he had gone along hoping for “a bit of an adventure” — but ended up feeling “a little bit taken advantage of”.
“It was exhausting work … I mean, I’d be fine with it, if it was more pay, but we were kind of at a loss,” he said.
His $280 wage — paid on piece-rate agreement — meant he paid more for his accommodation at the hostel than he earned, as did Mr Rolston.
“I didn’t expect to make much money, but I thought I’d go back with a little bit of a profit,” Mr Wighton said.
Chloe said she gets paid hourly and that her rate was about $14.
‘It was the opposite of Instagram-famous’
Speaking to the Regional Australia Institute in September, Mr McCormack said anyone “lounging around with a surfboard” on the coast should come to the regions.
“Tell them to bring their mobile with them, because it would be a great Instagram moment for them to get up the tree, pick some fruit,” he said.
Far from lapping up social media “likes”, Mr Rolston said reaching for his phone would have cost him a job.
“Use of the phones while we were working was actually prohibited. We got told not to have our phones out while we were working,” he said.
“It was the opposite of Instagram-famous, it was don’t touch the phone kind of thing.”
Chloe said her hands have been too full with work to snap photos.
“I’ve been too busy to get my phone out,” she said.
No ‘love of their life’ found but plenty of friends
Mr McCormack also flagged the potential for making new friends or finding “the love of their life” while on regional work quest.
Mr Rolston said that while love proved difficult to find, he and Mr Whighton made “tons of new friends” from all over the world while staying at their hostel.
“I can’t really complain about that. I did meet some pretty cool people,” Mr Rolston said.
“That was really good to get an insight into their own lives as well and hang out.”
Chloe said she would take away something extra — a work ethic.
“I’ve made lots of new friends and the idea of knowing what actual work is because before I thought it wasn’t as hard as it actually is,” she said.
Hundred-question application to pick cherries
For many, the enthusiasm was there, but the offers weren’t.
Jodie* was hesitant to share her tale of rejection under her real name.
She applied for at least 10 farm jobs through employment marketplace Seek, the Government’s The Harvest Trail job board, Gumtree, social media and Agri Labour Australia — but didn’t manage to lock in anything.
“I figured, I’ll turn up in my work boots and my hat and I’ll just go to work,” she said.
“But there’s not even that option because they’re not interested.”
At times she said felt employers “danced around” the wage topic, tried to make the job sound “as unappealing as possible” or made “unreasonable” requests.
She missed out on a job that would have required her to work 12-hour days, seven days a week.
On another occasion, she was asked to fill out a 100-question questionnaire for a job picking cherries.
“I’m answering them all and tapping them on my phone, going, ‘this is to pick berries’,” she said.
She said she was starting to think some farmers might prefer migrant workers to Australians because they would be less likely to complain about small wages.
“I feel like they don’t have the same sort of legal requirements around wages,” she said.
“I know a lot of them live on site and [employers] charge them accommodation and all that sort of stuff.”
‘You take out what you put in’
Fruit Growers Tasmania CEO Peter Cornish “completely rejects” the wage exploitation suggestion.
“Absolutely there’d be a preference to support locals and our local people, but really it’s for those people who are coming along and who are productive and want to give it a go, they’re the ones our growers want, wherever they come from,” he said.
He said locals might find seasonal work less appealing because it was just that — seasonal.
Of wages, he said average pickers on piece rate should be able to earn “15 per cent more than what you can on hourly rate”.
Cherry grower Howard Hansen — who at the peak season employs about 450 people — agreed.
“Fruit picking’s all done on piece work so you’re paid based on your productivity,” he said.
“We tend to find that motivated people do really, really well — but you take out what you put in.”
And this year, it does appear that more locals have decided to put in the work.
“We won’t really know until the season keeps progressing, but we have a lot more people involved, and I think the suggestion that we may be having a doubling of locals involved is probably about right,” Mr Cornish said.
“We certainly saw a lot more interest … we had a lot more people take [it] up.”
The Department of Agriculture would not say how successful Mr McCormack’s campaigning had been, or what the farm employers and workers thought of it.
However, it said the Government was encouraging Australians to assist with agricultural harvests and recognised the challenges people had when doing farm work.
“We are investing $17.4 million in relocation assistance and $16.3 million to incentivise young Australians to take up farm work by temporarily changing Youth Allowance (student) and ABSTUDY independence eligibility criteria,” a department spokesperson said.
*name has been changed