In light of recent complaints about working conditions and pay, the Immigration Department's response was to stop the voluntary work eligibility. You can read more here if you like. We are quite devastated by this ruling, as it has some pretty dire consequences for us, as we may have to increase our prices if we have to start paying wages. Apart from the fact that we will miss the pleasure of getting to know such lovely young people!
This is a bit lengthy, but this is my response to the Immigration Departments Media Release and I thought that you might find it interesting and balance out some of the bad press about exploited workers.
"This letter is to respond to the suggestions in this media release and to hopefully get written confirmation of the date of the introduction of the new rules if in fact there is going to be some new rules and how these are formulated. This response will give an outline of our business and how we use the second year visa application in attracting helpers to our farm. It will suggest that there does need to be changes to protect young international visitors from unscrupulous employers, but that voluntary work should not be included. I would suggest that voluntary workers should still be able to use the time spent in regional areas as eligible for the second year visa. Volunteers are free to leave a work place when they wish, and they are not expected to accept substandard conditions at any farm. If they are not free to leave, then this would be considered a criminal act and should be dealt with as such. This is completely different to working for less than the minimum wage and the exploitation of workers.
We run a Free Range Pork business in Central Queensland. We have been in the build-up phase of our business for a few years and as it’s still growing, all our spare money goes into further development of the business. Unfortunately we would not be able to sell our product if we had to include the cost of wages. People have come to expect cheap food and we have to compete with large organisations that seem to be able to supply it. Over the last few years, we have used international visitors to assist us on the farm and most of these people have been engaged through a site called “Helpx”. This is all volunteer labour and one of the attractions for people to come to our farm is the opportunity to count the time spent here towards their second year visa. We welcome these young people into our home and do try to treat them like we would treat our own children. We teach them about our way of farming, and we teach them about food and the benefits of growing your own. Most of the helpers are from the city and this is their first taste of country life. They learn a lot of skills as well as knowledge about food production here that they wouldn’t learn in most job situations. A lot of farm businesses use international visitors to help on their farms for similar reasons to ourselves and to my knowledge the helpers are treated fairly and there is no exploitation.
Most of them enjoy their time here so much that they spend the entire 88 days here. Even though they don’t earn any money, they get fed very well and their work hours are usually around 6 hours per day. We have had a lot come here after spending time in a working hostel. They don’t stay there very long, as the conditions and pay for the jobs they do is very bad. In fact we spoke to our local ABC radio about this subject last year, as we felt that something needed to be done about it. We never thought that “that something” would be to detrimentally affect us. This work is not volunteer work, it is underpaid work and the two concepts should not be confused. The very concept of Volunteer work is just that, its volunteer work. If people don’t like it they can leave. In fact we have had people come to our farm and leave within a few days because they get here and realise that it is not what they want to do. We take them to Rockhampton or arrange transport for them. There is never any ill feeling, as we don’t want people here unless they want to be here.
Our current helpers are surprised about this ruling. They have intentionally come here because they want to stay in one spot and be comfortable, learn about the Australian country culture and learn about farming and healthy food. They are fully aware that they could leave if they are unhappy. We appreciate their help and they feel that they have some ownership in our business because they know that we value them and their help.
The recent report on Four Corners on ABC TV, highlighted a very real problem with the abuse of workers in working hostels and other factory work. There were several issues highlighted in this program – underpaid workers and illegal workers. Voluntary workers were not discussed. We are aware of the problem associated with underpaid workers and have been very concerned for some time about this, as some of our helpers have been treated badly. This is the issue that needs to be dealt with by the Government. The supply of a pay slip may help, although a payslip can be fabricated in a false business name, leaving no trail. We have heard that there are people that will sign paperwork for the 2nd year visa application for a fee. The same can be done with a fabricated payslip. The abuse of illegal workers will continue as long as people come here and are not on a working visa. Neither of these issues is being addressed through preventing voluntary work from being eligible.
The working hostels and contractors that are engaged by farmers need a lot more scrutiny. This is the where the real problem is, not with voluntary workers. Our business does rely on voluntary workers and so we are very concerned about the changes that are being suggested. However, we believe that stopping the eligibility for voluntary work to count towards the 2nd year visa will not address the very real problem of abuse. We believe that the immigration department needs to address the abuse of workers that is happening through working hostels and contractor labour hire firms.
To conclude, I would like to ask the question: How is stopping the eligibility of voluntary work being used towards the second year visa, going to prevent the abuse of workers and the abuse of the 2nd year visa application, or the use of illegal labour? I have attached some references that some of our previous helpers have posted on the Helpx site about time spent at our farm. If we have to pay full wages we will no longer be able to have these great people come to our farm and enrich our lives and theirs. Please re-consider the eligibility of voluntary work. If the decision is not to be re-considered, please give me a cut-off date so that our current helpers can be assured that they will still be accepted."