Life in the Australian harvest industry

A few months back, I recall someone asking me what was the worst job I’d ever had. I thought about it, but didn’t have an easy answer. I’d had some jobs that weren’t that great, but nothing that leapt out at me as especially atrocious.

I now have a very definite answer to that question.

I returned to the town of Katherine following my time at the cattle station. Katherine is the third-largest city in the Northern Territory, but that fact is not easily believable. It’s a strange little place, with one main street, and loads of backpackers hanging around, either looking for jobs on surrounding farms, or working at places around town like Target, McDonald’s, and The Coffee Club.

I’d stayed there briefly six weeks earlier, and went back to my old hostel, one of two in town. I was surprised to find it completely booked up, and reluctantly began hauling my bags over to the other hostel. In early August, Katherine had been hot. Now in late September, it was like a blast furnace. Unfortunately, I reached the other hostel, drenched in sweat, to find the same no-vacancy situation there. Great.

As I stood at the front desk, contemplating my limited options, three guys entered. It turned out that one of the guys, Daniel, an affable Korean fellow, was the supervisor of a harvest work employment agency. The other two guys, Martin, a lanky Dutchman, and Hugh, an Irishman, were starting work with him on a pumpkin farm the following morning. Daniel said that he needed more people for the pumpkin work, and that if I agreed to join, he would arrange a bed for me in the hostel.

As soon as he mentioned pumpkins, my mind flashed to my trip with Boris, the Frenchman with whom I’d traveled up the east coast of Australia a few months prior. Boris had been in Australia a long time, and had done a lot of agriculture work in different places. I distinctly recalled him saying that the worst work he’d done had been pumpkins.

But as I said, my options were limited. My only other choice was to take a room at a proper hotel for over $100 a night. And I’d been planning to try out some agriculture work in the Katherine area anyway. I’d hoped to spend a couple days decompressing from the cattle station, but no bother. The life train was pulling away, and I needed to jump on board. If the work was really terrible, I could quit at any time. I agreed to Daniel’s proposal and got my dorm bed.

Work began the following morning at 7 a.m. The farm was a good 30 minutes outside of Katherine, so we had to be outside at 6:20 for Daniel to drive us over. I was wearing my work gear of shorts, long-sleeved shirt, wide-brimmed hat, and work boots. Hugh, Martin, and I all sleepily carried our lunch bags to the waiting van.

We arrived at the farm and were dropped off in front of a big shed full of boxes of pumpkins. Around a nearby wooden spool table sat a group of backpackers, smoking and putting on sunscreen. Most, a half dozen or so, were French; there were also three Italian guys, a Japanese girl, and a Canadian guy. Hugh, Martin, and I thus added even more diversity to the group. It turned out that the French group had been there the longest, and all of them were camping rough on the farm. The Italians and Canadian had started only the day before, and the Japanese girl a bit earlier; like us, they were staying in Katherine.

The boss, John, who had a trim white beard and short, thinning white hair, at first seemed like an ok guy. He asked the three of us where we were from, then sent us to assemble some pumpkin boxes with one of the Frenchmen. It wasn’t too difficult, but it also didn’t take too long.

Next we joined a few of the other guys in throwing big, gray, round pumpkins onto a truck. Hugh and I and one of the Italians were at the bottom, and we would pick the pumpkins off the ground and heave them up to two other guys who were standing on the truck. They would catch the pumpkins and drop them into bins. The truck moved fast and the lifting was strenuous, but overall it wasn’t bad. The teamwork aspect of throwing and catching definitely made it easier.

Next we joined the rest of the group, who were all working on a bigger truck. This truck was processing smaller, light brown-colored pumpkins called “butternuts”. A tractor pulled a big trailer behind it. The trailer had a bunch of bins and a conveyor belt on it. A boom containing another conveyor belt stuck out from the trailer at a right angle over the field. The tractor would drive forward slowly, and one group of us in the field would pick the pre-cut pumpkins up from one of three rows and place them on the conveyor belt. The pumpkins would then move up the belt to the trailer, where the second group would clean and sort them according to size.

The rows were long, and the work extremely hot and tiring. Again, the teamwork aspect helped a lot, but the physical exertion in the heat was quite intense. We would go up the full length of the field, at least 100 meters, throwing hundreds of pumpkins onto the truck. Once we finished, we would all greedily gulp down water from a motley assortment of refilled juice and Coke bottles, and some of the guys would roll cigarettes. But as soon as the tractor circled around, we were at it again. John yelled and pushed us to keep going; he didn’t seem like quite such a nice guy anymore.

Eventually we finished our rows, and everyone thought we would be heading in to lunch. We’d started at 7, and it was now 11:30, and getting quite hot. But after we’d piled into a pick-up truck, John drove us to another field and gave us each a small pair of cutters. The French guys showed us how to cut the butternuts, and we started.

This was my first experience with what was unanimously agreed to be the worst work at the farm. In order for the truck to go around and gather up the pumpkins quickly, they first had to be cut manually with shears. The pumpkins grow on vines along the ground, so the job consists of constantly bending and snipping with the shears. It’s a simple job technically, but backbreaking and almost unbearably monotonous. There’s no teamwork aspect and no escape from the sun, and the field seems to stretch on forever.

When we first started cutting, there was a sizeable group of us, so we finished half the field somewhat quickly. But then John pulled everyone off to do more truck work, leaving only Hugh, an Italian called Marco, and myself.

The three of us toiled on for what seemed like an eternity. The constant bending was irritating, but sufferable. What was unbearable was the heat. It was 40° C that day, and as I worked I felt it pressing on me constantly from all sides, suffocating me, choking me. I drank water and I sweated, but it was hard to notice an effect from either; the water just continually passed from my lips through the pores of my skin.

We kept cutting and cutting, wondering why we still weren’t going to lunch. Finally, Marco snapped. He stood up and looked around in bewiderment and disgust.

“Why am I-a here? Why do I-a do this?” he said. He then started cutting furiously, steaming ahead of Hugh and I to finish the row fifteen minutes ahead of us. I would see this kind of moment repeated from time to time over the following week with other workers, including myself. I guess there’s something about cutting pumpkins with a bent back under a blazing sun that makes you question the life decisions that brought you to that point.

When we finally got in to lunch, we looked like a group of war refugees. Everyone had the same beet-red face and washed-out, sun-dazed look. I felt ill at ease and didn’t have much of an appetite, but I forced myself to eat my tuna sandwich and fruit to keep my strength up for the afternoon.

While we were eating, I started talking to one of the French guys, called Joe. I asked him how long he’d been there. Looking completely drained, he replied, “Ten days. But it feels like ten years.”

Mercifully, John let us off for the afternoon. I’m sure his decision was economic, rather than compassionate, but I wasn’t complaining. He even let us swim in the lake near the shed while we waited for Daniel to come pick us up. Joe had described John as a “Nazi”, but gestures like sending us to the lake seemed to indicate a friendlier side to him. However, within the next day I would come to see Joe’s description as highly apropos.

The following morning we headed in again, to encounter the same depressing roundtable scene of backpackers resigned to their daily fate. John sped up in his pickup truck and got out in front of us. He walked past us, mumbling something. We all looked at each other, wondering if we had been given instruction. John passed by us again, looked at us sitting at the table, and barked, “Well come on, get in the fucking truck!” We all scrambled to jump in the truck bed, and he sped off to the fields.

Variations on this scene would be repeated regularly over the coming days. John would rant and shout orders at us, and constantly threaten dismissal if he perceived anyone to be slacking in the slightest (“We’re here to work. If you don’t want to work, then fuck off!”). We always had water, but no formal break times aside from the lunch hour, which John usually clipped to 50 minutes. One day he screeched up early in his pick-up to take us back to the fields. Unprepared, we scrambled to fill up the water bottles for the afternoon and get them to the truck. Fuming, John sneered at us in a voice that could best be described as a cross between Truman Capote and Hannibal Lector: “Oh for fuck’s sake, they didn’t even fill up the fucking water bottles! Are your mothers in Katherine? Hmmm??? Will she be cooking you dinner tonight???”

To fully understand the Australian harvest industry, one must understand the Australian visa system. Australia offers a lovely type of visa called the “working holiday”. This visa allows foreign visitors under the age of 30 to stay in Australia for an extended period of time while legally engaging in short-term employment, thus allowing travellers to defray the exorbitant costs of living in Australia, or even to save money for travel in cheaper countries post-Australia. This was the visa that I had during my year in Australia. However, while U.S. citizens are granted one year and one year alone, citizens from most other Western nations (France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Canada, etc.) are eligible to receive a full second year in Australia. The only condition is that during their first year, they must complete three months of work, either on a farm, or at a job located in a remote, undertraveled part of Australia.

Thus, traveling around Australia one meets hordes of foreign backpackers trying to figure out how to complete this three-month indentured servitude that will provide that highly coveted second year in Australia. I see this visa system as a stroke of genius on the part of the Australian government. Backpackers who normally wouldn’t venture off the Aussie Tourist Trail running the East Coast from Sydney to Cairns now spend a full 90 days slaving away fruit picking, or pouring beers at some roadhouse in a desolate Outback town. All for the privilege of staying another year to drop even more money into the Australian economy. Brilliant, brilliant racket.

One day John smirked to me, “I suppose in your country, Mexicans would be doing this work.” I certainly had to give him that one. Americans by and large seem to quietly accept that the low, low prices for their fruit in the grocery stores are the result of the sweat of largely undocumented Latino workers in California. And across the U.S., undocumented Latinos can be found supporting the American economy working in landscaping, food preparation, construction, and many other jobs. As an American, it is fascinating to see a very similar situation in Australia, only with the workforce being made up of young working-holiday backpackers from Western Europe.

Yes…go ahead and laugh

The situation at John’s pumpkin farm fit pretty well with the stories I would hear from other backpackers both before and after working there. Asshole boss, harsh working conditions, and extraordinarily high turnover, either through firing or quitting. The farmers seem to have generally come to the conclusion that the most cost-effective strategy for them is to work the backpackers as hard as possible, treat them like shit, and keep a nice turnover of fresh hands churning through the mill. From the farmer’s perspective, I can understand that you have to be firm with the backpackers to ensure that they don’t constantly slack off. In John’s case, I’m not arguing that he had to be a friendly, easy-going boss. He just didn’t have to be a constant asshole.

Despite the tedious work, ferocious heat, and John, there were some upsides to working at the farm. As I noted earlier, the teamwork aspect of certain parts of the job helped a lot to get through the day. There is something about shared pain, completing a highly difficult task together, that bonds people like no other adhesive.

For example, one day we were doing truck work picking up butternuts. I was down in the field, putting pumpkins up on the belt as the tractor rolled along. We had enough people that John had a couple of guys following along with cutters, clipping pumpkins that had been missed during the last cutting. An Italian guy called Jimi was behind me for most of that field; he would clip the pumpkins and throw them up to me, and I would put them on the belt. It was a simple operation, but when we got to the end of the long rows and stopped for water, we looked at each other and nodded, a bond of labor having been formed between us.

Another day, we were once again doing truck work with the butternuts, this time in the hottest part of a very humid afternoon. As usual there were three rows to be put on the conveyor belt; there were six of us on the ground to accomplish this task, two to a row. These rows were stacked with pumpkins, and with the tractor moving slowly but steadily, we would be working flat-out to get them all on the belt. I was working on the far row, partnered with an affable Korean guy named J.S.

That stretch that we did that afternoon was unquestionably the most brutal that I experienced during my time at the farm. As usual, the rows stretched on forever, and my entire world was just J.S. and I, our hands moving furiously, backs constantly bent, as we struggled to get all of the pumpkins up on the belt. The tractor kept moving unmercilessly forward, revealing more and more of the damned little brown pumpkins. The humid air pressed on us for all sides, smothering us like a heavy wool blanket. My hat was completely soaked in my sweat, which dripped off the brim and constantly ran into my eyes, stinging them. Like some kind of sick endurance test, the six of us down on the ground completed the entire length of the field without stopping or drinking water. When we finally reached the end, J.S. and I barely had enough strength to clap each other on the back as we staggered to the truck for water. We were brothers in arms; we had fought in the trenches together, and emerged alive.

There was also something rewarding about putting in a hard day’s work of manual labor. The work itself was hell, but when it was finished at the end of the day, there was a sense of physical accomplishment. Hanging out with the other guys after work, we had that easy camaraderie that comes with such a job: one-upping each other for who had the toughest assignment that day, talking about future plans, bitching about John.

When we had a small group slaving away at the cutting, talk would frequently turn to spending the money we were making; as I noted earlier, probably as a way to justify to ourselves why we were there working at such an abysmal job. The most frequently invoked destination was Thailand, and how far our money would go there. One of the Italian guys, Matteo, put it best: “When I start to get tired and angry, I just think to myself, every hour here is one girl in Thailand.”

I stayed at the farm for 10 days, and in that time I saw everyone (except the constant French crew) who had been there on the first day trickle away. The Canadian quit on the second day, angry that he’d been made to cut for the entire day without getting to swap out for truck work. Marco quit the following day before lunch, saying, “I go back to my bed.” A German guy came and went after two days.

Jimi had the worst dismissal story, and the most damning indictment of John. On the morning of the fifth day he was put on cutting with a few other guys. At lunch Jimi wasn’t there, and the guys he had been cutting with said John had come, berated Jimi for not cutting fast enough, and taken him away. His friend Dimitri told us the rest of the story the following day. Apparently John had driven Jimi back to the shed and told him to get his things, that he was fired. Jimi said fine, assuming that he would just sit idly at the shed for the day until our ride back to Katherine came in the afternoon. But John barked at him to get in the truck, that he would drive Jimi back to town. Jimi said fine and got in the truck. John then proceeded to drive Jimi only out to the main road, and told him to get out. Jimi vehemently protested, as, if you recall, the farm was a full 30 minutes drive from town, and the sun was already beating down on the open road. But John insisted that Jimi get out right there and then. Jimi did so, and luckily was eventually able to hitch a ride into town with a passing truck. His only regret was that at the moment he realized what was happening, his repertoire of English curse words failed him, and he was only able to unleash a torrent of Italian invectives on John, which obviously fell on deaf ears.

By the end of 10 days, I’d had enough. The day before, Hugh and Martin had jumped at the chance to move over to a nearby watermelon farm, eventually taking Jimi and Dimitri with them (and where they reported working conditions were significantly better). I decided to head on to Darwin and see what work I could get into up there. It was strange riding in to work without them on my last day. My company was now a quiet German guy called Roberto who’d been there a couple days, and two new couples, one French and one Japanese. Constant turnover.

In the morning we were all out doing truck work, throwing the big green pumpkins around. About halfway through the field-length, John rolled up in the golf cart that he sometimes used and called out to me. I walked over to him, and he asked, “Can you drive a car?” I replied that I could, and he told me to come with him. While we puttered down the road in the golf cart, he explained that he wanted me to drive the pick-up behind the tractor-trailer while everyone worked, and that when they finished, they would all get in the truck bed and I would drive them over to the next work site. I said that would be no problem. Then he asked me, “What was your name again?” I replied, “Vince,” and he said, “Ah, Vincenzo!” affecting a slight Italian accent. I was surprised, as it was a rare moment of friendly humanism from John.

As I drove the pick-up behind the trailer, I felt guilty watching my colleagues working flat-out, heaving pumpkins around, while I cruised along in an air-conditioned cab. Yet at the same time, I also had second thoughts about leaving the farm. See, John’s not such a bad guy, I told myself. And now he’s giving me a mini-promotion, perhaps since I’m the only one who’s lasted 10 days. Maybe I could stay a little longer.

After lunch, John sent us out in small teams to do more cutting. I was with J.S. and Roberto; as usual, our rows seemed to stretch on forever under the blazing sun. While cutting, we would keep moving forward, leaving out water bottles behind; therefore, it would be necessary to periodically walk back down the field to drink water and then move the bottles up to our new position.

At one point, J.S. stopped cutting and walked back to drink some water. As he was returning to his position, John roared up in his pickup.

“Are you going to work, or just fucking walk around all day?” John shouted at J.S. Taken aback, J.S. bent down to continue working, and as he did so, he made a sort of grimacing face. John must have mistaken this grimace for a mocking smile, because immediately he started screaming, “Is that funny? Is that fucking funny???”

Again surpised and confused, J.S. quickly said, “No, no” while shaking his head. Then he bent down to keep working. He rummaged around in the vines, looking for a suitable pumpkin to cut. After about three seconds, John shouted, “Oh just cut a fucking pumpkin, dickhead!” J.S. cut a pumpkin, and John huffed and sped off. J.S., Roberto, and I just looked at each other.

Ah, yes. Now I recalled why I was leaving.


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