WHEN a group of foreign backpackers decided to speak out about the woeful pay and conditions they were constantly forced to endure, the NewsMail didn't just bring you the story - we followed it until we drove an unscrupulous operator out of town.

There had been rumblings back to 2009 of backpackers not being paid fair wages or superannuation, but the story really took shape in March 2011 when a group of fed-up foreigners gathered up the courage to speak to NewsMail reporter Vanessa Marsh.

Their complaints were of being paid below the minimum wage or not for the actual hours they had worked, of abusive labour hire contractors, and of paying more in hostel accommodation and bus travel costs than they were actually earning, leaving them financially worse off than when they arrived.

It wasn't a good story for Bundaberg.

It also created a headache for tomato producer SP Exports, then one of the biggest growers of its kind in the region and the country, which had engaged the labour hire contractor but was unaware of some of the issues happening on the ground with its large workforce.

Thanks to Miss Marsh's persistent reporting, things moved quickly.

SP Exports managing director Andrew Philip soon sacked the labour hire company, led by a shadowy character called Max.

Max left town soon after with his business partner, who had been supplying him with workers through two hostels in both Bundaberg and Childers.

The Workplace Rights Ombudsman announced an investigation.

New operators took over at both backpacker hostels, promising to turn them around and run fair establishments.

And Miss Marsh, who was then a cadet reporter, was named one of three national finalists in the Young Walkley award - the highest prize in Australian journalism.

Don't forget to watch the other slideshows in our 12-part We Were There series.



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