The Fresh Food People – A Story on Malaysian Fruit Pickers in Australia

The Fresh Food People explore the stories of promises and the most famous ‘easy’ solution offered to Malaysian especially young graduates to settle their debts and other financial issues that are openly advertised on Facebook and blogs. Fruit picking jobs in Australia are usually sugar-coated with “work while on holiday” to attract young people who don’t have a permanent or a secure career path.

Armed with a cap, a scarf tied around the neck, a long sleeve shirt with a hoodie jumper on the outside for protection from the scorching unforgivable blazing sun, a pair of gloves to keep their hands from getting any scars from pointy branches of apricot trees, a pair of torn jeans or sweat pants, brown muddy boots from yesterday’s work and a thermal bag filled with lunchbox and sodas, an army of farm workers usually woke up as early as 4 in the morning to get ready before a driver came to pick them up to their workplace.
Most workers from the Asian countries came to Australia lawfully before they headed to unnumbered houses or modified fruit packing sheds which were occupied by 9 to 24 tenants in farm areas such as Mildura, Robinvale, Swan Hill, Shepperton, Bundaberg, Perth and some other places. Most of them only stayed for the fruit picking season or before their 3 months tourist visa expired, while the others choose to overstay especially when they had a mountain of debts to be settled back home.
 
Illegal workers from Malaysia are on the top of the list of over-stayers followed by China, and the number of Malaysians on the run rocketed from 4640 in 2011 to 7080 in 2014 from the total of 62,000 over-stayers. More than 17,300 visa cheats have been hiding from the authorities according to data revealed by The Advertiser.
As many are affected by the economic downfall in Malaysia, most Malaysians are trapped by the uncertain promises made by the agents in their country. They came here to land a job as cheap labours which were usually underpaid to get rid of the unsettling burden that they carry back home, such as family support, debts, loans, medical bills of close relatives, mortgage others came here to achieve their dream, to start a new life, to earn some business start-up money, savings to get married or buy a property in the land they called ‘home’.
The agents usually charged them around MYR3000 to MYR5000 for a flight ticket and a fake return flight itinerary as a dummy to pass the Border Control Protection interrogation at the airport, and a tourist visa. The fruit pickers left their old profession back in their country such as engineers, chefs, university lecturers, and even architects, took their chances to earn some dollars as an exchange for their sweat, time, and sometimes blood to send the money back home.

The workers also had to pay some amount of money from AUD600 up to AUD1000 to agents in Australia to help them apply for a Protection bridging visa which will allow them to work legally. There were a lot of scams involved in this process as the actual fee charged to apply the visa is only AUD35.
I spent 5 months living with the fruit pickers mostly from Malaysia and Indonesia and used my Iphone4s as a medium to learn the reality of this overrated “work while on holiday” ads on Facebook and blogs, and to explore the stories of the owner of the hands that picked Australian favourite fruits and vegetables. They earned AUD12-AUD17 per hour which was below the minimum wage, AUD21 per hour. Fruit and vegetable growers here preferred Asian workers more than the European backpackers as they work harder, easy to be exploited as many of them couldn’t speak English, much more heat-resistant, and aren’t picky of the jobs that are given to them.

Despite being discriminated by the locals and usually exploited by the farmers and dodgy labour-hire contractors, these workers worked hard to supply the major players in big companies to ensure that the fruits and vegetables are there when you open your fridge or when you set up your dinner table during festive seasons and dinners.

They came to Australia at great cost and risk, spent their savings for the flight tickets, rent, and food for the first week in Australia, left their wife and child so they could have a better future, some even didn’t get the chances to pay their last respect to someone close to them as they may never be allowed to enter Australia again if they leave, gambled their marriage and not be there when their small child are growing up. These are the possibilities that they have to be mentally prepared before they set foot here.

Sometimes, I saw them, often staring at the sky, just be “in the zone” for a few seconds, when there is an airplane crossing the horizon leaving contrail behind, and wondered,

is it worth it? 

 

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Locally grown, imported pickers.
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A worker walks to the farm where he works in Woorinen, Victoria.
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Muddy condition after rain makes it hard for the workers to climb the stairs to reach the fruits at the top of the tree as it’s slippery.
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A worker checks his kangaroo bag for rotten fruits to be thrown on the ground in Woorinen, Victoria.
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Portrait of plantation workers from Malaysia working in the rain in Woorinen, Victoria.
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Plantation workers pick Capsicum in a farm in Woorinen, Victoria. Workers who work in vegetable farms are much more affected by the weather than workers who work in fruit farms as there are no trees for them to take shelter from the blazing sun.
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Due to the market demand, a lot of vegetables are thrown away for small burns, not enough colors, or just wrongly picked. 2015 was said to be among the worst picking season as the weather are unpredictable.
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Plantation workers rush to shelter as heavy rain hit them without warning in Woorinen, Victoria.
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Fruit pickers having their 10 minutes break or “smoko” in a Nectarines farm in Woorinen, Victoria.
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A worker helps his friend to get pass the barbed fence in an attempt to flee after being warned that the Immigration Department and Border Control are about to raid the farm that they work in Woorinen, Victoria.
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Plantation workers flee after being warned that the Immigration Department and Border Protection are about to raid the farm that they work in Woorinen, Victoria.
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A diptych of worker hands after work. Hot weather, dehydration, and sharp branches usually cause peeling of the cuticle skin. In certain cases, some workers accidentally cut themselves while pruning the tree as they lose their focus after a long hours of work.
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Plantation workers sleep in the cramped van after a long day work in Ferntree Gully, Victoria. The van windows are covered with black cloth as it is illegal to exceed the amount of passengers allowed in a vehicle.
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Plantation workers live in an abandoned workshop, modified to fit 9 people in Woorinen, Victoria. With no internet access provided, basic kitchen, and a dinner table, workers have to pay rent AUD85 a week per head to the contractor.

 

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A worker plays with his phone after a long day of work in Woorinen, Victoria.

 

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Workers spend the evening playing football and use wine bottles as goal post in Woorinen, Victoria.
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Workers spend the rest of the night watching TV and drink during New Year Eve in the shed in Woorinen, Victoria. There is not much for the workers to do during the night because internet connection are poor inside the shed and it is too cold to stay outside.
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Workers spend the night outside the shed sharing personal stories while smoking and drinking before going to bed.
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A worker fell asleep at the shed “living room” in Woorinen, Victoria.
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Plantation workers run into a vast wheat field after being warned about the raid by the Immigration Department and Border Protection in Woorinen, Victoria.

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