Below is a story from one of our members who stayed at Dons in Mildura. If you’ve ever been scammed or thought someone is taking advantage of you please contact the fair work ombudsman or share your story with our 90.000+ members.
In January 2014, after four months of travelling in Australia, myself and three other backpackers I had been travelling with, decided it was about time we started looking for farm work, so we could get our second year visas. We looked on gumtree and found a lot of similar sounding adverts, all based in Mildura. We were hoping to research any place we were going to first, but there was no name of a company or a hostel. The person that had posted the job advert, was an English backpacker working there herself though, so we assumed it would be legitimate, it can’t have been too bad if she was working there, We had spoken to a couple of girls that had posted other adverts and they were all the same set up, so we thought it must just be how farm work was advertised (not knowing then they were all just adverts for the same place). We decided we would give it a go, picked one of the adverts and looked into travel.
We had spent Christmas in Sydney, so we had to buy two flights, to Melbourne, then Mildura. The girl we spoke to said we would be picked up from the airport and taken to the house we would be staying in. She came to pick us up, along with Don.
From the start we had gotten bad vibes from Don, he seemed very opinionated and intimidating. The journey was bizarre, he said a number of things that made us look at each other and squirm. He had asked us about our backgrounds, I had told him I studied history at university, to which he responded by asking what I thought of Hitler and that he thought he had “some good ideas”, and it was good he did what he wanted. He also said a number of homophobic statements. The journey was very uncomfortable, but we were hoping we would perhaps not have to see him very often, once we were moved in and working.
He drove us to a cash point to we could each withdraw $450 (two weeks ‘job search fees’ and a bond). He then drove us to the house, before letting us in he, asked us to sign a contract, stating the money we were paying was a job searching fee and NOT rent and that if we wanted to leave we would have to give two weeks notice.
Living in a Garage
When we first entered the house, it seemed alright, although we were then told we would be staying in the garage; there were six bunk beds and twelve of us sharing this garage. When we were in the house, more and more people kept appearing and when the work day had ended, lots more people arrived. There were so many people sharing this one house, in which there was two bathrooms, one of which was ensuite, so only people in that room could use it. We were told we were lucky though, that we got to live in the house – it was a lot better than the caravans some people were living in on a separate site. We were beginning to think perhaps we had made a mistake,but by this point we had spent so much money on flights and fees. At least people there were working, it was not like the stories of hostels we had heard about where they say they will find you work, but never do.
After just a day we got told three of us would be starting work, grape picking, but it was only for girls, “Steve” would not be working yet. We had gone to the shops to get food, but got called back to go to an induction. The work was pretty straight forward, we were picking the grapes and putting into bags, 12 bags to a box, weighing them as we went. We were to work in pairs and would earn $3 per box between us. I made $9 for half a days work! When Don picked us up he told us would would get quicker and could earn up to $100 a day. That seemed very unlikely!
Speaking to Others
Speaking to people in the house, other people wanted to leave, but were worried about getting their bond back. A lot of people in the house seemed worried about saying too much in front of certain people, we were told often Don would be reported back to. Don had his ‘favourites’, he had a certain group whom it seemed didn’t have to work but got money for getting people to sign up, they would ride around in the mini bus with Don all day. We were told stories about Don kicking people out of the house for no reason, with little to no warning. It then dawned on us, why our fees were so specifically referred to as job finding fees rather than rent, so Don could do what he wanted. Most of the people had gone there with little money after travelling looking to earn money or had spent the last of their money giving it to Don. So everyone was scared of being kicked out penniless, everyone was walking on eggshells.
On our second and third day we earnt about $18 each, working nine hour days in the heat of the Australian summer. There was no way we would even make our rent back each week, let alone earning any money for food. This was not the Australian dream we had hoped of.
Doing Our Research
On the third day we got back to the house and “Steve”, who had still not been given work, had been doing some research. He found on YouTube a video of ‘A Current Affair’ all about Don. Everything they said in the video was exactly what had happened to us. We realised at that point why his name had not appeared on any of the job adverts on Gumtree. There was plenty of information about him, but he was very careful to get your money and get you to sign the papers before you can do any research. To get our deposit back we had been told we would need to give two weeks notice, this would mean we would have to pay at least another $150 for staying there another week. In the video it made it clear it was unlikely we would get paid, our deposit back or signed off for any days we had done. We decided then that we should cut our loses and leave.
Cutting Our Loses
We thought about telling Don we would not be going to work the next day, but we were scared he would kick us out. He had said that we could refuse any work, but we were also told that if we weren’t working we couldn’t stay there, because we were taking beds of people that could be working. We booked a taxi to the train station and snuck out of the house in the morning. We were all down so much money and were scared of doing any farm work in the future.
My advice to anyone else is to avoid farm work that pays by the bucket/box rather than an hourly pay. Be weary of anywhere that demands large fees upfront especially if you haven’t seen the accommodation and don’t know exactly what the work entails. Definitely do not go anywhere unless you can research the place (there is a name of a person or company) or someone that you actually know has already worked there.
A word from Fruit Picking Jobs
As bad as this situation is one key lesson to learn is to do your 2nd year visa work when you arrive in Australia. This will eleviate the financial stress ( load up your bank account early) and eliminate the rush of doing your specified work last minute ( help you make better less rushed decisions). Obviously you should never pay big money upfront to recruiters and always do your research on employers.
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My Mildura Nightmare