In 2005 the Australian Government, presided over by John Howard at that time, devised a cunning way to make money from the hoards of backpackers who visited the country each year. It legislated that any British travellers visiting Australia on a twelve-month 417 Working Holiday visa who had spent three months working in a regional area in farming, fishing, construction or mining would be eligible for a Second Working Holiday visa, allowing them to stay in the country for a further twelve months.
By luring in vulnerable backpackers, willing to do just about anything to stay in Australia for another year, the government was going some way to tackle the deficit of workers willing to carry out manual work in areas outside hubs like Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. In the ensuing years, farmers and farm owners were able to take advantage of the scheme and welcome British (and other) backpackers into their workforces to pick fruit, dig dirt, look after livestock and essentially do the heavy lifting that young Australians tend not to want to do.
With clever schemes, unfortunately, comes scheming. Farmers were able to entice young Working Holidayers to work for free or for very little and exploitation was rife. From accepting cash bribes to provide fake work evidence, to paying girls for sex in exchange for visa eligibility, it seems farmers have tried it all. Most of the time, though, Working Holidayers were just exploited in monetary terms, being paid peanuts for gruelling work that wasn’t being regulated.
Last year, with changes to the legislation that called for evidence of work and fair pay through pay slips and bank account details, things begin to improve, and now there are supposedly fewer scams than ever before. However, that doesn’t mean the farms don’t present a minefield of stress, worry and difficulties for people who are looking to extend their stay in Australia.
While most people have a wonderful experience working on a farm for three months, some are less fortunate. I wanted to write about my experience because I learnt quite a bit on my farm placement. It’s not to say I had a bad experience per se – the area was stunningly beautiful, we had a comfortable living space and I experienced things I would never have come across had I not been on a farm in the outback – but there are some things I certainly would have done differently if I knew before what I know now. So here are ten things I learnt doing farm work in Australia for a Second Working Holiday visa.
1. Read up on the rules and regulations before you start (and don’t just believe the hearsay that flies around)
There are so many rumours, ‘facts’, fictions and figures that fly around in relation to the Second Working Holiday visa that it’s easy to memorise misleading information. It’s best to jump on the Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection website and take the time to read about the 417 visa and follow the prompts to information about eligibility for the Second Working Holiday visa. The Working Holiday Visa Employment Verification Form 1263 has been my most cherished guide, outlining precisely the type of work that qualifies you for the visa (namely plant and animal cultivation, fishing and pearling, tree farming and felling, mining and construction) and which doesn’t, as well as showing you which postcodes you have to work in.
2. Go with a friend you trust and get on well with
Fruit picking on an isolated farm can be tough, and if you’ve got a friend to go with, take the opportunity for that support. If you are travelling Australia alone, there are plenty of Facebook groups for backpackers to meet and greet one another to become friends in real life. The most important thing is that you do meet them before you go out to the farms alone with them. It’s not worth going into the situation any more blind than you have to and knowing who you will be there with really helps. Even the nicest farm experience will be a difficult one if you don’t have someone you can talk with and relate to in the more trying times. If you’re fruit picking, chances are you’ll be staying in a hostel or small town where there are lots of backpackers doing the same thing as you, so there will be plenty of opportunity to make friends and socialise after work.
3. Ask plenty of questions (no matter how silly you may think they are)
It’s unlikely you will have been to the farm you’ve agreed to work at before, so ask plenty of questions. What is the farm’s address (that’s an important one!)? Is it somewhere people have been able to work for the Second Working Holiday visa before? How long will I be able to work for? What will the pay, hours and benefits be? What should I bring with me? Is there transport? Are there any shops in walking distance? The more you know, the less likely you are to stumble on a scam or be exploited.
4. Avoid hobby farms
A condition of the work carried out for a Second Holiday visa is that it contributes to industry, i.e. takes place on a farm that operates as a business. It emerged over the first few days of my farm work that the farm I was working on was not a ‘professional’ farm as I had thought, but rather a hobby farm. It was fine – we were still being paid and receiving evidence for our visa – but it meant that the owner of the place didn’t have a reliable payroll system in place and working hours weren’t contracted or supervised. Our employer actually changed his terms, dictating longer working days and fewer opportunities to leave the farm to buy food, halfway through the period of work when he realised his hobby was incurring quite an expense through the hiring of workers legally; that was pretty stressful. If I had my time again, I would choose to live on a working farm where I could learn from a seasoned farmer while benefitting from an established pay roll and regulated working conditions.
5. Get your working hours and conditions put in writing before you start so you don’t get exploited
If you can, get your employment terms in writing before you start so a farmer can’t change his or her mind about paying you or signing you off for the visa application half-way through your period of employment. Our laid back farm owner was happy for us work a standard 5-day week when we began working for him, but when it dawned him that he had to pay us legally, with tax and superannuation taken into account, he ramped up the hours and often expected us to work on weekends. If I had asked for the original terms to be put in writing, I would have been able to prove that what he was asking us to do later on was outside what we had agreed and actually close to flouting Fair Work Ombudsman rules.
6. Make sure you have transport
Australia is a huge place, and many farms and stations are miles away from the nearest corner store or pub. Our farmer kindly picked us up from Sydney and drove us to the farm, offering to visit once a week to take us into the nearest town for grocery shopping and a break from the isolation. He even sweetened the deal by offering the possibility of a little car we could drive around. The car never showed up, and he visited us less than once a fortnight in the end, meaning we ran out of food on more than one occasion (and I had the mortifying experience of completely running out of tampons!). My point is, make sure there will definitely be a car for you to drive if there are no shops in walking distance, and have a look at what public or community transport options will be available to you.
7. Find out what the sleeping arrangements are before you go
There are horror stories from farms and fruit picking placements that cite damp old sheds filled with thin mattresses as accommodation for backpackers. Most experiences don’t come close to that as far as discomfort goes, but it’s always a good idea to confirm where you will be sleeping – and what you’ll be sleeping on – before you agree to farm work. You’ll be doing manual labour, so this stuff is important. The accommodation on our farm was fine – a mattress on the floor, but in a very clean and dry cabin with all the modern conveniences of hot water, pool tables and ice machines – but I was in for a shock on the first night when it turned out the farm owner was going to be bunking in the same room as us. Everything was open plan, so it turned out that nothing was private for the whole three-month stay. That took a bit of getting used to…
8. You can work for three consecutive months or 88 days, depending on what suits you (but three consecutive months is definitely the easier option)
The ‘three months’ defined by the Australian Goverment means three consecutive months working full time, i.e. five days a week for eight hours a day on a farm that considers 40 hours a week full-time work, or 88 full days of work added together where work is taken at ad hoc periods throughout the year, i.e. by someone who spends 60 days picking berries before travelling for two months and then completing a further 28 days’ work at a tree felling company. I went for three consecutive months because it meant I had weekends free to explore my new outback home, at least to begin with (see point 5). I think 88 days would be tough because you’re literally counting by the working day. Weekends wouldn’t count, so you’d have to live on a farm for around four-and-a-half months if you wanted to complete 88 days in a five-day-a-week, eight-hour-a-day job. Intense. 88 days is only handy, really, if you want to do some travelling in between two or more farm placements.
9. Don’t expect ‘business as usual’
Many of the Working Holidayers that go to the farms to extend their stay in Australia have no prior experience of remote rural living. Don’t go to the farm expecting to be able to shop on weekends, keep your fake nails intact or join Tinder for an array of spectacular dates: it’s just not going to happen. Go to the farm ready to embrace a new way of life and ready for a kind of isolation you might not be used to. A car will help (see point 6), but you probably won’t have much time for bowling or cinema trips!
10. Celebrate small triumphs and be ready to accept unexpected gifts
The farms are tough for anyone, but they are also unique and educative – often life-changing – experiences. The work may be harder than anything you’ve done before, the quiet may be something you can’t ever quite get used to and you might find you don’t quite see eye-to-eye with every backpacker you meet. But try and celebrate small triumphs, like helping to harvest a huge crop or learning to drive a new piece of machinery. I felt pride when I managed to build sets of heavy shelves for farm storage and I enjoyed the ache in my arms when I dug compact soil to keep fruit trees looking healthy. Amidst the hard work, there will be experiences you will remember forever: unexpected gifts that make the hard work worth it. For me, it was taking part in a group horse ride along the Turon River to find missing cattle that defined my experience. If you want to work hard to stay in Australia, jump in and give it all you’ve got – it could be one of the most rewarding things you ever do.
11. Some Second Working Holiday visas are granted instantly
I applied for my Second Working Holiday visa through the Australian government’s online immigration portal (online.immi.gov.au) on a Sunday and received two emails instantly: one confirming my application had been received and the other granting my new visa. I was absolutely delighted after having worked so hard over what turned out to be the most stressful three months of my life. In other cases, a visa may take up to six weeks to process, so don’t be worried if yours isn’t get granted straight away. You’re not actually required to supply evidence with your online application, but it would be wise to keep your payslips, written references and signed Work Verification Form to hand in the event that the government looks into your case and requests evidence. All that’s left for me to say now is, good luck and enjoy this beautiful country!
All words and photos: Rosie Pentreath
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