As a condition of receiving your second year visa in Australia, backpackers are required to undergo 3 months or 88 days regional work in a rural community in order to apply. This work usually involves laboring, fruit picking, working on a ranch or even in an outback pub. Although the giving back concept makes sense considering the wealth of the experience you get travelling this beautiful country, a failure in regulation and supervision has resulted in many young people being exploited by farmers in order to get their visa forms signed off.
It’s amazing the what you are willing to put with when you want something badly enough and many backpackers who have traveled to Australia in search of a better life are willing to go through hell and back to spend another year in the country. Of course, this isn’t always the case, many complete and finish their farm work quickly and without a hitch but for more than a few it can be a desperate struggle.
I arrived at a working hostel in Mildura Victoria, eager and willing to get my hands dirty. The hostel had already found us work orange packing and everything seemed to be running smoothly. At first the hostel seemed a little run down but after a few days it quickly became home. The orange packing job was however, an absolute nightmare. Eight of us went on the first day, excited to be starting a new job and working towards our second year visa only to be met by a snarling woman who seemed to be hell bent on making us miserable. Four of the girls quit after the first day, but as someone who is pretty stubborn I was determined to continue on and get my days signed off as soon as I could.
We worked for the orange packing shed for five weeks. For the first week, because we were only ‘learning’, she paid us ten dollars an hour, which is illegal, but we needed those days!! The woman berated us constantly about our work, threatened to cut our pay, shouted at us every two minutes and talked about us with her daughter in law, calling us stupid even though we were stood right beside her. All in all we weren’t even human to her. Although the working hostel were well aware of the temperament of our employer and the conditions in which we were working, nothing was done.
After five weeks the job finished as the packing shed were unable to sell the oranges. Unsurprising considering the employer had the same business acumen of a toilet brush. So now I needed another job, but the mindset of the owners of the working hostel was that newcomers got priority. Speaking to our fellow backpackers it became apparent that it was easy to get trapped in the hostel for long periods of time without work. This meant you couldn’t leave because you needed work and you only got enough work in order to pay them rent. Catch 22. Often this work was one or two days, sometimes washing cars or laboring and didn’t contribute to the visa conditions. Girls struggled the most as it was easier for the boys to get manual labor jobs. One girl had spent six months of her visa there trying to secure her 88 days, due to lack of work from the hostel owners and because farmers would refuse to sign the forms.
In all I spent four and a half months in Mildura, and don’t get me wrong I had an amazing time, made some amazing friends and in the end, I got my visa. Others haven’t been so lucky. My friend was unable to complete her farm work even though she arrived in August and her first year visa didn’t finish until February, she still hadn’t completed enough days to be able to apply for another year due to the hostel not giving her enough work. She left Australia bitterly disappointed and let down by how the system works.
The working hostels are mostly at fault for promising work on which they can not deliver and further exploiting backpackers in order to make a profit on rent. It seemed as though we were denied work so we stayed longer as we could only afford rent and not afford to leave. Although efforts are now being invested in changing the terms it seems ironic that the government has allowed this to continue for so long considering that the Australian economy and farming industry has relied heavily on the backpacker culture a lot of whom have turned their backs on this beautiful country in order to explore a much more welcoming New Zealand and Asia.