Young, temporary workers from overseas add labour and life to the fruit-growing region of Sunraysia.

Story By Ricky French

Despite negative coverage on national television recently about the exploitation of workers on 457 visas, the vast majority of producers and hired hands work well together to their mutual benefit.
It’s Thursday morning in the middle of the Sunraysia district and Charlie Zappia and Jeremie Laly are getting ready for another day of work. Outside, 16 hectares of table grapes need attending to. A barricade of empty boxes holds up one wall of the storage shed while dozens more boxes full of fat, tender grapes bide their time in the chiller, awaiting transport to market. It’s the middle of summer and the hot Mildura sun is reddening skin as it ripens fruit. The shed provides merciful shade and relief from the heat.
You probably couldn’t find two more different people than Charlie and Jeremie. Charlie is a 25-year veteran of the Sunraysia orchards, a man of the land who knows table grapes inside out. His family came out from Italy in the 1950s and Charlie inherited the land from his father. They started growing dried fruit before moving on to table grapes. He runs the business, Happy Zapps, in partnership with his wife, Jeanette.
Jeremie, on the other hand, is a 28-year-old backpacker from Oléron Island, off the Atlantic coast of western France, who has never worked on the land before coming here. Jeremie is seeing Australia for the first time and is working for Charlie to help pay for his trip.
He is one of more than 45,000 foreign backpackers each year who are taking advantage of a scheme that allows them to work in rural and regional areas, helping to keep Australia’s regional economies moving.
Becky Jones, 19, is relaxing after returning from a shift at Happy Zapps. She is from Ireland and is planning on staying in Mildura for up to four months. “I love the fact that Mildura is a small town,” Becky says. “I’m from Dublin, which is enormous. The people here are so hospitable, they’re the best part about living in a regional town in Australia. The work pays well and is not too strenuous.” Becky says Charlie and Jeanette treat her extremely well. “They feed us breakfast, and when we finish in the afternoon we’ll sit down and have tea and toast. It’s a real family atmosphere.”

This Story is from Issue #101

Outback Magazine: June/July 2015