BYTE ONE: 88 days: Cultural exchange or just cheap overseas labour?June 7th, 2018 | | industry
The context of a working holiday
The Australian government and farming sector make good use of the influx of young tourists and backpackers who come to this country and the government designates them as “temporary immigrants”. They get either a Work and Holiday visa (subclass 462), or a Working Holiday visa (subclass 417), which one depends where they are from. Then backpackers can work, study, and/or holiday for up to one year.
To apply for a second year visa, backpackers are required to complete 88 days of manual labour in a designated rural area, so designated by its post code (usually farm work or fruit picking). From a simplistic standpoint, this works quite well as it’s a ready supply of flexible rural labour for growers and farmers who find it hard to source reliable labour locally. In return backpackers seeking to complete their 88 days are also able to experience more remote parts of Australia and also get paid for it. Provided their experiences are postive, these young people then return home with amazing stories and pictures to make all their friends jealous enough to apply for their 417 or 462 as well. And the cycle repeats.
However, it’s rarely that simple and amid the mainsteam media’s recent negative attention of 88 days of farm work gone wrong (a slew of sexual harassment, gross underpayment, and even deaths in extreme cases), The Byte decided to carry out some ‘first person’ primary research.
Some personal experiences
Thibault Julien, a backpacker from France, left home three years ago to travel the world. Thibault stopped in Perth eight months ago when he decided to make some extra money for a year on a Working Holiday visa. He successfully found farm work on a chicken farm, AAA Egg Company in Gingin, where he completed his 88 days in one shot. Though Thibault admits the labor was strenuous (he worked 12-13 hours a day at times), he says the pay was reasonable. “I learned a lot about the people working there … their culture, their food and their traditions. These other workers were mostly Taiwanese, South Africans, and Italians. Culture is quite present,” Thibault says. He plans to return to farm work in Australia in the future, when he needs another break to make money during his world tour.
Laura Gylanders, a 27-year-old backpacker from the UK, says, “If people are looking to do their farm work and don’t expect to do manual work, they need a reality check.” She stresses that people should understand why they are completing their 88 days —”they’re there for a reason.”
Like Thibault, Laura had successfully completed her 88 days without interruption at a sweet potato farm in Bundaberg, a city notorious in the media for unfair treatment of migrant labourers. Though she hadn’t run into serious issues at the farm personally, she knew of people who had died in nearby farmlands. Her brother, who had come with her to Bundaberg, had been fired multiple times because his Type 1 Diabetes didn’t allow him to work in extreme temperatures.
Laura’s supervisor in the farm’s packing shed was a 21-year-old woman, who would “take a disliking for no real reason and fire them” leaving Laura and her peers “constantly in fear of [losing] their jobs.” In addition, Laura witnessed first-hand racism from locals who look down upon young, foreign backpackers. Would Laura and her brother’s experiences be considered a cultural exchange, or has Australia regressed into something less honourable? Is receiving racial slurs or other unkind words part and parcel of a cultural experience? Nonetheless, Laura has experienced a different way of life in juxtaposition to the people she’s interacted with, some of whom have never left there own home region, let alone the country.
Alternatively, one backpacker from America, Sarah Hall, had successfully found a job on Gumtree at a pub in Greenvale, where she worked with genuine people who treated her like family and offered her accommodation. Overall, Sarah had such a great experience, she hadn’t even wanted a day off so that she could power through her 88 days, but had taken one day off every week at the request of her boss.
The struggle of finding work
Another underlying issue of the visa system is the lack of actual work available (at least in some cases). Laura and her brother had spent five weeks trying to find private farm work, and points out that farm work and fruit picking work is only available when the season permits. One young backpacker from Germany, who chooses to remain anonymous, knows a handful of people who have had significant trouble finding farm work, and resorted to using a friend’s ABN and post code who had completed their 88 days. “I don’t think the government realizes how tough it is to find farm work,” she says.
As a result, most backpackers rely on labour hire contractors, usually their hostel manager who also provides accommodation. Some disreputable hostel managers will rip their clients of rent money and additional fees, while they find them work (or not). Other backpackers avoid this by finding work online, like on social media or Gumtree.
A Canadian backpacker who chooses to remain anonymous, is in the process of completing 88 days of farm work at a brewery, on an agricultural site in the Southern Highlands of NSW, where she feeds cows and helps with the harvesting of hops. Despite feeling lucky for working under understanding people who help her out with accommodation, she refuses to call her work a cultural exchange. “It’s straight up labour to get your second year visa,” she says.
The whole ordeal of performing manual labour as a young backpacker to be counted as a legal person (to obtain the second year of their visa) in Australia may be somewhat absurd, but the unfair treatment of said labourers is what pushes this process over the edge and brings so much negative attention.
On 16 April 2018, registration of the labour hire industry in Queensland commenced via the Labour Hire Licensing Act 2017. With South Australia taking similar steps at about the same time. Key points under the act(s) include: licensees must satisfy a fit and proper person test to prove that they are capable of strenuous performance, the labour hire business is financially viable, penalties for breach of obligation.
“Queensland took a big step in registration and licensing. The Victoria Government will consider doing the same” Sam Badans, Hostel Manager of YHA Central and Hon Secretary of BOA NSW says. Certainly all other states must make similar improvements in order to see the cultural exchange aspect of the 88 days requirement to remain valid, rather than just let it be seen as the cheap labour side of the argument.
Written by Samantha Melamed