A gap year in Oz is a rite of passage for many women. But, as Kerry Parnell reports, backpackers forced by Australian law to work on remote farms in order to extend their visas are risking their lives
It was fated that Mia Ayliffe-Chung would go backpacking – the vivacious 20-year-old had the travel gene in her DNA. Her mother, Rosie, was a travel-guide writer, who conceived Mia in Goa and took her as a baby when she toured Turkey compiling The Rough Guide. ‘She was like me,’ says Rosie, 55. ‘When I set foot in a foreign place, I’d feel a surge of freedom.’ Inspired by her mum, Mia set off on her own round-the-world backpacking trip in 2016, hoping to find adventure. ‘She posted two photos online from Goa, one of each of us on an Enfield motorbike,’ says Rosie. ‘I didn’t even know my photo existed; she must have stolen it from one of her dad’s albums. I realised then she was following in my footsteps.’
After backpacking through Southeast Asia, Mia arrived in Australia. Falling in love with the country, she decided to extend her working holiday visa for a second year. Afterwards, she planned to return to the UK and use her childcare qualification to set up a nursery with her mother, now a teacher, in their Derbyshire village. But Mia never returned home. On 23 August 2016, she was brutally murdered in a hostel in Home Hill, North Queensland, a small town 13 hours north of Brisbane.
Mia had been working on a cane farm in a remote location she would never have chosen to visit were it not for a much criticised Australian law. In order to qualify for a second year in the country, backpackers on a working visa – of which there are about 211,000 – have to complete 88 days of specified work, and results in thousands of young people travelling to remote areas to find employment. By doing so, some – particularly young women – unknowingly put themselves in danger. The man who stabbed Mia to death was fellow farmhand and backpacker Smail Ayad, 29. The Frenchman was sleeping in Mia’s dormitory and is alleged to have developed an obsession with his beautiful roommate. Fellow British traveller Tom Jackson, 30, came to Mia’s aid when Ayad dragged her from her bunk, but was also stabbed and later died in hospital. Ayad will not face trial and has been detained in a mental-health facility while awaiting deportation to France.
When Rosie travelled to Australia to collect her daughter’s body, she was appalled by the conditions that Mia had lived and worked in. She subsequently embarked on a mission to bring reform to the visa scheme and quickly became a central point for young people sharing their horrific experiences. Rosie knew nothing of the 88-day scheme, but assumed that because it was a government requirement, it would be regulated. She found the opposite. Incidents of sexual assault were common, as well as a number of high-profile kidnapping cases.
In March, Gene Charles Bristow, a 54-year-old farmer was found guilty of kidnap and rape of a 26-year-old Belgian backpacker after luring her to his property in Meningie, South Australia on the promise of farm work. Instead, he shackled and assaulted her in a pig shed. In 2017, Perth winery owner Peter Raymond Costa, 57, was found guilty of raping a 24-year-old Japanese backpacker. The same year, 27-year-old German backpacker Jennifer Kohl was crushed to death by a mower on an avocado farm in Queensland, and Belgian backpacker Olivier Max Caramin, 27, died from suspected heatstroke while picking watermelons.
Rosie has set up the charity Tom & Mia’s Legacy, as well as the farm work review site 88daysandcounting.com, saying she will not stop campaigning until she has effected real change. ‘While the 88 days is still creating situations where young women can be locked up and raped by men posing as Australian agriculturalists, I won’t stop in my endeavours to campaign for change,’ she says. She also wants to ensure backpackers are aware of their workers’ rights, as they are often financially exploited by farmers and hostels, too. ‘I heard about agencies that promised work when there was none,’ says Rosie. ‘Also, that farmers had underpaid workers, hostels charged exorbitant fees and confiscated passports. Tom had tried to leave Home Hill days before his murder, but his passport had been withheld.
‘I heard that farmers had underpaid workers and confiscated passports’
The Fair Work Ombudsman Harvest Trail Inquiry, published in November 2018, found that almost a third of backpackers did not receive some or all of their wages, 14 per cent had to pay fees to secure work and over a third were paid less than the minimum wage (AUD$18.93/about
£10 an hour). Many were paid nothing at all, with the promise that their visa requirements would be signed off instead. Former British high commissioner to Australia, Menna Rawlings supports Rosie. ‘We raised concerns with the Australian government about the conditions that young British backpackers can face when working in remote areas, including drawing attention to the aims of Tom & Mia’s Legacy,’ she says.
There has been some progress with the Australian government setting up a Migrant Worker Taskforce and introducing the Modern Slavery Act. However, the country recently announced a third year working visa if backpackers work even longer on farms. The Harvest Trail Inquiry concluded in November last year, with inspectors investigating 638 businesses around the nation. They found over half had breached workplace laws. ‘We will continue to monitor employers,’ said Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker. ‘Growers and labour hire operators can expect to face further action if they do not comply with Australia’s workplace laws.’
Emma Reynolds, senior journalist at News.com.au, who has extensively covered the issue, thinks this is just the start. ‘There’s definitely still nowhere near enough being done to ensure backpackers are safe while working on Australian farms,’ she says. Reynolds has interviewed dozens of travellers, many of them young and female, who shared their experiences of sexual harassment and assault, serious injury, emotional abuse and unsafe working and living conditions. Their testimonies have led her to the conclusion that, if the Australian government insists on running a programme in which backpackers are encouraged to complete this work in exchange for visa extensions, then it’s the government’s responsibility to enforce rigorous standards. Reynolds says monitoring is vital, as many of the farms are in extremely remote locations. ‘A few steps have been made, but this is just the beginning,’ she says. ‘There should be strict rules for accreditation and regular spot checks on approved workplaces. It doesn’t reflect well on Australia, which prides itself as a safe and welcoming travel destination.’
Tracey MacCorquodale, an executive assistant from Canada, witnessed first-hand the casual sexual exploitation to which backpacking travellers are susceptible while working in remote areas. At 27, she was older than the other women she worked alongside at a farm in Mildura, Victoria. When she arrived, she was surprised to see everyone was female and wearing bikinis. ‘I was told the farmer didn’t like to wear underwear and I would probably see him exposing his genitals at some point. Sure enough, I soon saw him on a tractor with his legs up,’ she says. ‘I also found out that wearing skimpy clothing was expected if you were working there.’ Tracey’s advice to anyone considering doing farm work or staying on for an extra 88 days is simple: don’t. ‘Do your year, have fun and go home,’ she says. ‘I’d never advise anyone to put themselves in such a risky scenario.’
Business graduate Chelsey*, 31, agrees. Like Tracey, she found herself in Mildura on a grape farm after replying to an advert requesting female workers. ‘The farmer was very friendly,’ she said. ‘On the second day, we went into town and bought cakes for everyone.’ As she had an accountancy qualification, the farmer offered her bookkeeping work and suggested she stay for a beer after hours, then he’d give her a lift back to the hostel. On the way home, he stopped the truck and grabbed her. Alarmed, Chelsey got out and stumbled into a ditch. ‘The next thing I know, he was on top of me,’ she says. ‘I started punching, kicking and screaming. All of a sudden, he snapped out of it, stood up and casually just got back in the truck. He drove me back to the hostel in silence.’ Chelsey reported the incident to the police, but no charges were brought. Six months later, the farmer sexually assaulted a Swedish backpacker and was placed on a community corrections order.
While most visitors backpacking around Australia return home having had the trip of a lifetime, Tracey and Chelsey advise caution, particularly in remote areas. ‘You have to be really careful, especially as a single female traveller,’ says Chelsey. Rosie told Mia the same thing. ‘There’s a word in Turkish which means travel wide awake,’ she says. ‘But, unfortunately, evil came when Mia was sleeping. I don’t have any anger towards Australia,’ she adds, and she still encourages young people to go backpacking. Something that comforts Rosie is that Mia is still travelling, too. Her ashes, split into multiple vials, are being scattered by her friends all over the world in the places she never got to see.
Off backpacking soon? Here’s how to travel safely
Know your rights: Backpackers can learn their work rights at fairwork.gov.au.
Ask around: Tom & Mia’s Legacy advises using social media for backpacking recommendations. Visit 88daysandcounting.com.
Don’t take risks: Just because you’re on holiday, don’t let your guard down. ‘Australia has earned its reputation as a safe place for foreign nationals to visit,’ says Leo Seaton from Tourism Australia. ‘But, as with any overseas travel, we advise travellers to exercise care and caution.’
Need help: Call 000 for Australian emergency services. For urgent consular assistance, visit gov.uk/world/Australia.
Get insured: Buy comprehensive travel and medical insurance before you go backpacking. The policy also needs to cover all of your medical costs, including an air ambulance.
*Name has been changed. Photographs by Caters News Agency, Getty Images, Naomie Jellicoe/Newspix, Rex/Shutterstock