Until hostel accommodation is overhauled, throwing money at the migrant labour crisis on Australian farms is a fruitless effort according to Griffith University research.

black and white, woman

Dr Kaya Barry’s research explores Australia’s temporary migration schemes, particularly working holiday backpackers and their experiences.

Dr Kaya Barry from the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research has published new research into the communal living arrangements of migrant farm workers based on 35 interviews with working holiday-makers in Bundaberg, Queensland.

She found working hostels played a central role in brokering and securing employment, including visa extensions, creating an environment for exploitative working conditions.

“Accommodation providers are very powerful actors and highly influence the management of agricultural labour done by migrant workers. Their role is on the same level as a migration agent, making it very difficult for people to speak out about poor conditions.

“Some hostels took hidden deductions from wages, compounding the already low-paid and sometimes illegal rates migrant workers received. Workers would get charged for transport to and from farms and for the weekly supermarket trip.”

She said hostel were often cramped, overcrowded and expensive, making them potential sites for future COVID-19 outbreaks.

“Hostels charge high fees from $100 to $260 per week for a bed in a dormitory shared with anywhere from 6 up to 24 other people. There is also a lack of reasonable facilities. One backpacker told me there was only one kitchen for nearly 150 people.

“Some hostels made attempts to group people into household units or roster times for communal areas. But with dozens of people coming and going to multiple employment locations it is difficult to adequately socially distance hundreds of people.”

Photo by Dr Kaya Barry

Dr Barry’s fieldwork also uncovered first-hand accounts of extensive racial discrimination in working hostels.

“People were sorted into ‘Asian rooms’ or ‘European rooms’ and there were different weekly rent rates for nationalities who were deemed ‘tidier’ or ‘cleaner’ than others.

“There were also other instances of segregation, with ‘Islander work teams’ and ‘white work’ teams being organised by hostel managers.”

Dr Barry said the public debate around fixing the coming food crisis does not factor in communal living arrangements and the influence of hostels.

“We’ve seen discussions about getting locals to work on farms and pick fruit, but Australians wouldn’t live in these conditions.”

“Future planning for all seasonal migration schemes needs to address these interrelated concerns facing a variety of visa workers.”

Momentarily immobile: Backpacking, farm work and hostels in Bundaberg, Australia is published in Geographical Research.