Seasonal workers, backpackers and work rights

Each year the number of workers employed in the agricultural industry is boosted by seasonal workers and backpackers who take advantage of various Federal Government programs like the Seasonal Worker Program or the Farmwork Scheme that provide incentives for people who are willing to spend some time in the fields.

Whilst these incentives can be good, seasonal workers and backpackers are at significant risk of injury. Farm work is dangerous, and language barriers can make it hard for workers to understand safety risks.

If you’re one of these workers, and something goes wrong when you’re on the farm, what are your legal rights?

Farm work is hard work

Farm work programs for backpackers and seasonal workers commonly include fruit picking and packing, cane and cotton farming or general farm work. Doing the same motion over and over is tough on the body, and many of our clients have been injured from repetitive work.  

Kevin* was just 23 years old when he came to Australia from South Korea on a working holiday visa. He decided to take advantage of the Federal Government’s visa extension program and picked up work as a labourer in Queensland’s Bundaberg region.

Known for its vegetables, fruit, nuts and citrus, Bundaberg is a popular region for backpackers like Kevin who want to spend an extra year in Australia. Backpackers, usually with limited English skills, rely on local contacts from the same background to help them find work. These local contacts sometimes take advantage of vulnerable workers and place them into tough work for very little pay.

In 2017, Kevin’s local contact picked him up for a 5am shift on a farm. Kevin spent six hours picking tomatoes before moving to another farm and spending a further five hours harvesting green beans. While bean picking, Kevin had to spend the day sitting on the ground and bending forward to repeatedly reach for beans.

At 4pm when his shift finished, Kevin stood up and had a sudden onset of pain in his lower back. The next day, Kevin tried to work and found his back was still too sore. A week later, Kevin went to the hospital before finally returning to South Korea for further medical testing.

What am I entitled to?

If you’re from another country on one of the farm work programs, understanding foreign laws can be tough. It can be made especially hard if you feel that speaking up about poor treatment at work might get you a one-way ticket back to your home.

In Kevin’s case, he remembers signing a document when he arrived at the farm but didn’t understand what it said. He was never given any safety inductions and didn’t receive training with his employer.

It’s important to know that you have rights that protect you if you, like Kevin, are injured at work. Depending on what state you’re injured in, you could potentially claim:

  • Past and future loss of wages
  • Past and future loss of superannuation
  • Past and future medical costs

You could also claim for emotional damage and a reimbursement for the cost of care provided to you.

How to seek legal advice

If you are injured at work, you should always:

  • Seek medical treatment, either by calling 000 for an ambulance or asking someone to drive you to a hospital. You don’t have to go to the doctor recommended by your employer or local contact
  • Tell your employer in writing that you are unable to work. This can be in your own language if your employer also speaks your language, but should preferably be in English too
  • Call the relevant state organisation for work injuries
  • Seek legal advice

The legal process can be tough, especially if English isn’t your first language but many law firms offer interpreter services to help you make a claim if you are injured.

There are time frames to making a claim when you are injured. These also differ between states in Australia, so you should seek legal advice as soon as possible. Most law firms will provide free initial legal advice. 

What about my visa?

It’s important to know that you won’t be kicked out of Australia for making a claim against your employer. As a worker in Australia, you are protected by Federal Government legislation that gives you the right to make a claim if you are injured at work without being penalised by your employer.

That said, many injured workers choose to return to their home countries to seek medical treatment. A claim should cover you for those expenses.

You should always seek the advice of your local consulate when it comes to visa issues. 

If you’ve been injured and would like to understand your rights, talk to us today.  Our staff speak many languages and can help find an interpreter if required.  It won’t cost you anything to find out where you stand.

RELATED LEGAL SERVICES: Work related injuries

Share this article on:

Andrew McKenzie

Maurice Blackburn Sunshine Coast
Andrew McKenzie is a passionate fighter for what is fair. He is a Principal at Maurice Blackburn and head of one of our Queensland departments. Andrew manages our Maroochydore office on the Sunshine Coast and has oversight of our Caboolture, Bunderberg, Rockhampton and Mackay offices. ...

Read more

See all contributors