Lockdown life: migrant farmworkers in regional Australia

By Kaya Barry, Griffith University, Benjamin Lucca Iaquinto, University of Hong Kong, Michele Lobo, Deakin University

What is it like to be under lockdown when you are living in a foreign country, working on a farm, and your ‘home’ is a single bunkbed in a hostel dormitory shared with dozens of strangers?

In regional Australia, the conditions of hostels have long been exploitative, even before the pandemic. Reports of abuse and sexual harassment are widespread; while stories of 150 workers sharing two kitchens as they return from work at the same time each day is common. However, during a pandemic hostel living is potentially life threatening as the possibility of contagion substantially increases within dormitories.

Recent research by the lead author (Kaya Barry) shows that restrictions implemented to reduce the spread of coronavirus only magnified sub-standard conditions of hostel life. With international borders closed since March 2020, and limited and expensive flights to return home, many backpackers in Australia are struggling to survive. Ineligible for government financial support, they are ‘stuck’ toiling away in low-paid farm work and living in crowded hostels.

Photograph courtesy of Kaya Barry.

Australia is a popular destination for backpackers, who easily find farm work while they tour and experience country life. With ‘backpackers’ now coming from 44 different nations, the Australian agricultural sector relies almost entirely on their labour. Traditionally the hostel provided a lively social space for backpacker tourists (mostly white Europeans), with low-budget shared dormitory rooms and communal facilities. However, the everyday experiences of backpackers who are also migrant farm workers, in particular for people of colour, highlight the widespread exploitation and racism that occurs in Australian working hostels.

Life in a hostel room that is home to a dozen migrant workers, with a bathroom shared by 24 people, makes basic hygiene and ‘physical distancing’ impossible. While high-density living is not directly causal for chances of outbreak, it does exacerbate the socioeconomic inequalities that many temporary migrant workers face. Advice from the Australian Government at the start of the pandemic was that hostels should limit numbers of people at any one time in communal areas of hostels. Yet as one backpacker described:

“At first they tried to limit the people in communal space, so the office could only have three people, the laundry, only three people, and the kitchen I think was ten people … we tried. But it didn’t work. There’s too many of us”.

Subsequent health advice was to classify people into ‘household’ groups allocated by dormitory room. However, these guidelines do not reflect the reality of hostel living. With twelve people in each bedroom, over a hundred in one hostel, all sharing common facilities like bathrooms and kitchens, the chaotic networks of movements heightens the possibility of an outbreak. We have seen elsewhere that dormitory accommodation for migrant workers has been the heart of many large outbreaks.

The issues facing backpackers and migrants in Australia are not unique. Migrant workforces, particularly in ‘unskilled’ agricultural sectors, were already at tipping point. The looming visa obstacles due to Brexit attest to this as a global concern. Cramped living conditions, seasonal work, and the expectation of highly mobile workforces continue to reproduce the ‘hyper-precarity’ of migrant labour worldwide, and the pandemic restrictions only magnify these social, racial and class divides.

Is change possible? ask Alpa Shah and Jens Lerche, who work with seasonal migrant workers in India. Geographers know the importance of examining how spatial and sociocultural tensions intersect. Attending to the specific concerns of marginal communities, in terms of the nuanced uncertainties and fears they may have, requires direct engagement to better understand and mitigate against potential outbreaks. Uncertain of what to do next, now nine months after international borders closed, around 80,000 backpackers remain in Australia. Unable to trudge, sail or fly beyond the island continent, the lockdown life of backpackers and other temporary migrant workers continues. In the face of such difficulties they continue to show resilience, invoking aspirations for borderless worlds free of lethal viruses and dangerous prejudices.

About the authors: Kaya Barry is a cultural geographer and artist working in the areas of mobilities, migration, tourism, material cultures, and creative arts research. She is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Griffith University, Australia, exploring how migration experiences are conditioned through materiality, everyday routines and visual aesthetics. Benjamin Lucca Iaquinto is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography, University of Hong Kong. He uses mixed methods to understand the fluctuating relations between tourist mobilities and practices. Michele Lobo is a social and cultural geographer whose research on co-belonging centres the everyday experiences of migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and Indigenous peoples in cities with white majority cultures. She is a Lecturer in Geography at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. She serves as the editor of Social & Cultural Geography and reviews editor, Postcolonial studies journal.

Suggested further reading:

Shah, A. & Lerche, J. (2020). Migration and the invisible economies of care: Production, social reproduction and seasonal migrant labour in India. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.

Barry, K.(2020). Momentarily immobile: Farm work and hostels in Bundaberg, Australia. Geographical Research.

Iaquinto, BL. (2018). Working holiday makers in Australia: Food security, climate change, and the backpacker tax. Geographical research, 56(1), 107-112.

Lobo, M. (2020). Living on the edge: Precarity and freedom in Darwin, Australia. Journal of ethnic and migration studies.


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