An Australian agricultural employer has been fined A$65,000 (about €39,000) for his responsibility for the death from heatstroke of the Flemish backpacker Olivier Max Caramin in 2017.
Olivier, aged 27 from Brasschaat in the north of Antwerp province, died after working in the pumpkin fields owned by Bradford Clark Rosten, while he was in Australia on a backpacking trip.
The day before he died, Olivier was rushed to hospital in Queensland after collapsing in the field, situated near the town of Ayr on the Coral Sea cost in the north-east of the country.
He had only arrived on the farm only a few days earlier, picking pumpkins in the heat of November – the beginning of summer in the southern hemisphere, with temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius.
On the third day he complained to fellow pickers that he wasn’t feeling well, but the investigation found he was advised to keep on working to meet the daily pumpkin quota. The boss of the squad also ordered him to keep on working.
“Everyone was so focused on their own work, until someone saw that Olivier was not doing well,” his mother said in an interview last year.
“He started to drift and then collapsed. First Olivier was driven to a local hospital, then he was taken to another hospital by helicopter.”
He died soon after, from heatstroke and dehydration. His last WhatsApp message read, “I’m exhausted and my hands hurt, but the pumpkins are waiting.”
The Australian authorities began an investigation, and produced a report which contained a string of failures on the part of the farm: temperatures over 35 degrees, no shadow, no water provided, constant work with no breaks, no training, no first aid kit.
Businessman Rosten owns a company called Pumpkin Pickers, a sort of agency that lets out pickers to farms when they need them. Many of the pickers are foreign backpackers, who can make some spending money before moving on. Exactly the same type of workforce, in other words, that keeps the fruit and vegetable sector turning over all over the world, including in Europe.
Pumpkin Pickers takes on about 200 itinerant workers in a year, and Rosten admitted he had failed to adhere to health and safety regulations. The fine was described by the court as exemplary, given the number of potential victims, and the precarious situation they were in as tourists.
The organisation Safe Work Australia produced research soon after Olivier’s death showing that deaths and serious injuries at work in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector had gone up by 18% between 2016 and 2017, reaching 16 deaths per 100,000 workers – twice as many as the second-worst sector.
At the same time, researchers from the University of Technology Sydney and University of New South Wales published figures showing that one-third of backpackers were paid A$12 (€7.31) an hour, compared to the legal minimum wage of A$22.13 (€13.48).
“An industry has been built around backpackers by people who want to earn money from these young people,” Olivier’s mother said.
“What you don’t know as a parent is that in Australia they exploit these strong, vital young people as a kind of guest workers, in often poor conditions, for less than the minimum wage. And the young people, who have often never worked and know almost nothing about the exact legislation, are easily fooled.”