Travellers living and working in Australia on the Working Holiday Visa are required to complete 88 days farm work in exchange for their second year visa. We began completing our 88 days at Skenes Creek Caravan Park, near the town of Apollo Bay in Victoria.
After speaking to a wide array of locals in the town of Apollo Bay, it has become apparent that a high number of backpackers have left Skenes Creek Caravan Park in a cloud of misery. Stories of poor living conditions, inedible food, emotional abuse and unsigned visa forms are well-circulated across the small town.
I am not too sure why no one has not yet posted anything online to warn other backpackers, but given all that I have heard and experienced, I have decided that it’s about time that someone wrote the truth about so-called “farm” work at Skenes Creek Caravan Park.
The Enticing Advert
My boyfriend and I responded to a promising advert for farm work on Gumtree:
- Live right on the beach.
- Relax and enjoy the beach lifestyle and borrow surf boards for free.
- Get a job in the nearby town of Apollo Bay.
- Work on a chestnut farm for just 4 to 5 hours a day in exchange for food, accommodation and having your second year visa signed off.
We could hardly believe our luck – it sounded like an amazing opportunity and we grabbed it with both hands. However, within moments of our arrival it became rapidly apparent that things were not all that they seemed.
- The accommodation
My boyfriend and I were shown to a filthy, aged caravan. It was infested with mice – the cupboards and surfaces were covered in their droppings. Dirty bedding and long-forgotten clothes were strewn across the cramped space; mouldy dishes sat fermenting in the sink. Our bed was made up of unwashed, used linen. At least a dozen or so flies buzzed in the enclosed space
We were told that the caravan was to be crammed with up to 6 adults.
One girl who came to complete her farm work said, “I was told on the phone that we would be staying in a beach hut. He [the caravan park owner] described it as a beach hut.”
Still, we made the best of it and asked for some cleaning products and scrubbed the caravan from top to bottom.
When we brought the poor living conditions to the caravan park owner’s attention we were informed that it was actually our fault that the caravan was in such a state.
“It’s your responsibility to make sure that it is cleaned before the next people move in,” he told us. “It’s not my fault if you guys can’t keep it clean.”
What he meant by this was that it was the previous workers’ responsibility to clean the van before they left and, because all of us foreigners are one and the same, it was therefore our fault that it was so filthy.
- The so-called “farmer”, Charlie, did not sign our visa/farm work forms
Charlie took great pleasure in making abusive, sarcastic and uncalled-for comments day in and day out. I have never been spoken to by anyone the way that he spoke to me. When he gave his worst insults, he would end the tirade with the phrase, “No dramas”, as though that settled the matter.
When we told Charlie that we would be leaving he hurled a string of calmly spoken abuse at us. We said nothing to defend ourselves, as always, for fear of him refusing to sign our visa forms. It seemed our silence was going to pay off, because Charlie assured us that if we left our forms with him they would be signed by the morning of our departure.
Yet the time came for us to leave and our forms were still sitting on his desk, unsigned and unmarked. Not only that, but Charlie had cowardly left the caravan park and was nowhere to be seen.
What is interesting is that after we left, Charlie lied to his remaining workers and insisted that he had been a good bloke and signed our forms. He then went on to declare that all of the “bad vibes” around the caravan park were solely down to my boyfriend and I.
However, it’s worth noting that three other workers walked out the same day that we did, citing the same reasons of poor conditions and Charlie’s lack of respect. Another girl had left two weeks before after only two days.
After losing 5 workers in one day, I would not be surprised if Charlie has turned on a more charismatic, reasonable face to the new arrivals since our departure, or at least that’s what I hope.
Since leaving the park and talking to people in town, I have heard stories of travellers completing their entire three months farm work at the caravan park and then not being signed off, and I have also been told that there have been those who literally ran away in the night.
- Work for 4 to 5 hours a day.
Charlie’s system of hours is this:
Every four hours that you work counts as one day worked. So, if you work 8 hours in one day, you have technically worked 2 days. By this system you could work 8 hours a day and complete your farm work for your visa in a month and a half, or you could have some days off instead.
However there are several problems with this:
Firstly, Charlie resented giving days off.
Secondly, Charlie would often make you work much longer than 4 to 5 hours, and he would accuse you of being lazy if you didn’t want to work longer. All too often you would sign out for the day only to be expected to help out with some job or other around the caravan park.
The third and final problem is that Immigration does not recognise this whole system of racking up hours; you have to complete 88 days of farm work. This leaves you in a very tricky situation if someone like Charlie goes back on their word and refuses to sign off your work and you want to make a complaint to Immigration. You may have busted your gut to work the equivalent of three months in a single month, but Immigration won’t recognise that – they will only recognise the one month that you actually worked.
- The work
The work at Skenes Creek was surprisingly fine – it was actually the best part of the whole experience. We picked chestnuts up at the farm whilst Charlie remained back at the caravan park, and the surrounding countryside really is beautiful.
However, there were days when we solely worked on the caravan park, sorting through rubbish and cleaning caravans. Charlie had one or two individuals doing nothing but working at the caravan park in exchange for their second year visa. Again, Immigration would not recognise this work as counting towards the second year visa as your work must be agricultural.
- We were asked for our for our credit card details “in case we broke anything”.
As well as asking every worker for their credit card details, Charlie went as far as to say that he especially needed my boyfriend’s as he was making my boyfriend responsible for driving the truck. This causes me to question the type of insurance that Charlie had on his vehicles.
Fortunately, none of us ever disclosed our bank details otherwise I am sure that we would have been charged for something or other. Almost all of the equipment was old, broken and repaired one-too-many-times, and we were frequently accused of damaging already-damaged items or vehicles (some of which we hadn’t even used, I might add). Charlie even demanded that my boyfriend pay $100 for a broken caravan window without even so much as a receipt.
I could forgive the poor nutritional value of the food given to us if the food weren’t offered so begrudgingly. Charlie saw our work as being in exchange for signing our visa forms, and the food and accommodation as a bonus.
Breakfast and lunch consisted of one loaf of bread shared between all workers. We only had two slices of bread with peanut butter each, yet Charlie accused us constantly of not rationing our food properly and eating too much.
Snacks included crackers and we only ever had fruit that was well passed its sell-by-date.
We would sometimes be given additional “luxury” food and snacks from the caravan park shop, but only once they were too out of date to sell. (I didn’t know that eggplant dip could be spicy, but apparently it can if you don’t eat it until two weeks after its use-by-date!)
The worst incident was when Charlie tried to make us eat gone-off chicken breast. Charlie insisted that the meat was fine, but fortunately a caravan park guest smelled the rotten flesh and declared that it was in no way edible. Charlie reluctantly conceded and made an angry comment about how it was clearly our fault because “someone had taken the meat out of the freezer when getting something else out and had forgotten to put it back.”
Two months later…
After leaving Skenes Creek, my boyfriend and I found a beautiful herb farm to work for in the area. We eat real food and have clean sheets, and both our company and work are valued.
We have had to discount the two weeks that we worked for Charlie and so will technically be completing 103 days of farm work. Whilst this is extremely frustrating, it has also taught us some valuable lessons regarding workers’ rights and trusting your instinct when you know that you that something is not right.