As most people know already, in order to attain your second year working holiday visa in Australia, you first need to complete 88 days regional work to qualify. This typically is completed by working on a farm but can also be completed by working in other industries like mining or construction for example. And unsurprisingly because of this mandatory requirement it inevitably does put a lot of backpackers in vulnerable situations where they are forced to accept lower standard working conditions in order to get these days signed off.
If you go on google it won’t take you long to find a horror story like this one about backpackers dying due to not being allowed a water break for example. And this In turn has led to some lawsuits being taken out against farms etc. So as expected with this level of bad publicity it is only a matter of time before the government will step in and act. And this has happened just recently.
On May 1st on the Australian Immigration website there was a press release from the Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Michealia Cash stating that “Volunteer work under the Working Holiday visa programme will no longer count as eligible work to qualify for a second visa” with the reason given that “The current arrangements can provide a perverse incentive for visa holders to agree to less than acceptable conditions in order to secure another visa”
To put it bluntly this move makes absolutely no sense to me what so ever. I understand that I am looking at this through a very narrow lense but from my experiences in Australia, from people I have spoke to in Australia, and from what I have found doing my research, it is the farms that do the paying that are causing the problems with working standards. And if you put it into perspective, by removing a significant portion of potential employment opportunities you are forcing more and more people to apply for the same jobs which will actually have the opposite effect to what they intend. This will only lower wages and lower working standards because the farms will know that for every person they employ they have 10 more willing to take their place, so why worry about working standards. If someone complains, fired no problem, I can easily replace them.
And it’s hard enough as it is right now to find paid regional work without these changes. When I went to Bundaberg to stay in a working hostel, half an hour before I arrived I got a phone call from my partner who was already there saying that the owner of the hostel just got back from a meeting with the farms they have contracts with, with the feedback that they only want Asians. And I’m not being racist here, but the reason for that is because Asians are hard workers and don’t complain about the little things like working standards. My Girlfriend for example was fired from the lemon picking job she had for giving the person she was working with first aid after the supervisors refused to do it themselves. They said they were taking too long a break. And this was contract work where you get paid for what you pick, when you get yourself an hourly paid job this is where the problems get even worse because the farmers will want to suck every inch of blood and sweat they can out of you for that $15 an hour they are paying you. They aren’t paying you to do things like drink water or go to the toilet.
So the whole concept of volunteer work is actually quite an appealing alternative for backpackers, like myself for that matter, who don’t want to go through the day to day unsurity of will I won’t I get work today? Will I or won’t I be working in safe working environment? Because when you are only working for board and food there isn’t that same need to bleed every inch out of your workforce because they don’t cost the farmer that much for having them there. I am currently working on an Organic Farm which I found through Wwoofing Australia and I work hard everyday, but the work is fair and we get treated extremely well, and I am actually having a cultural experience where I am doing a variety of jobs and learning a lot about the industry and alternative diets. You don’t get this kind of experience from picking fruit for 88 days.
I know not every paid farming job is going to be bad one, and not every volunteer farm is going to be playing by the rules or even be setting good standards themselves. But this move really just a lazy one if anything, because the real answer is bringing in some real regulations and monitoring so peoples rights are actually protected. Because it makes absolutely no sense why the answer to a problem caused by the minority should punish the majority who follow the rules. Wwoofing Australia have recently set up a facebook page and petition to speak out against this. I urge you to follow and sign up to this today.