A rural farm near Brisbane, 6am. Australian autumn in full swing by the end of March — it is now my fourth week on the strawberry farm and I’m slowly getting used to the routine. Having never done any manual work before — planting strawberries, chives and limes; repairing pipes and managing irrigation systems — all in 30-degree heat. Upon my initial arrival to Australia six months ago whilst holding a Working Holiday Visa (417 subclass), I knew that eventually, the time to pay my dues would come. In Australia, it is compulsory to complete 88 days of agricultural labor, should one wish to extend their stay for another year.
The scheme behind this visa is simple — depending on which country you are from and if you are under thirty years old, you are allowed to remain in the land ‘down under’ for up to twelve months, whilst being able to pick up short-term work or study. You can work for one employer for no more than six months and study for up to four months. And if you happen to fall in love with the sunshine, Aussie culture, or another human being for that matter, there is an opportunity to prolong the stay for another year. You’ve got to give back though.
Completing 88 days of ‘specified work’ didn’t seem daunting at first. It promised a real Australian adventure, an opportunity to meet new people and an ability to fulfil a duty to the country that I wished to benefit from. The official immigration website suggests a variety of industries to seek employment in, from construction, mining and fishing to land and animal cultivation. Fruit picking and packing is by far most popular one, with no prior experience required and farmers being in desperate need for seasonal workers.
Finding the said ‘specified work’ wasn’t an easy endeavor. It took hours of scouring the Internet, calling the farms directly and keeping a close eye on Facebook communities. According to the International Visitor Survey report, the number of backpackers arriving to Australia is increasing every year, amounting to more than 600,000 in 2017. The young travelers are huge contributors to the tourism economy and Working Holiday Visa takes it a step further, directing workers into remote areas of the country.
As I first arrived to the farm, I got briefed on health and safety measures, set up in a modest barn-type accommodation with another worker and told to start my 6-hour day at first light. The transition to a full-time laborer began with me hunched over in the red mud of the strawberry fields, spraying the weeds and replanting weak bunches. It also began with an education on the way produce gets from the ground to the supermarkets and on how different organic farming methods can reduce chemical use and waste, making a big difference. The challenging workload was brightened up by the fresh country air and occasional sightings of kangaroos hiding in the bushes.
Mandy Schultz, the owner of the Luvaberry Farm, has been a part of the Working Holiday visa scheme for more than 12 years now, employing dozens of young people every year and prizing herself at taking very good care of them. “Australia’s Working Holiday Scheme is perhaps the most luxurious scheme available for travelers. It works well for everyone – it fills the regional positions in agriculture, provides the source of income for backpackers without the double tax and it’s an amazing cultural exchange,” she says. It’s a way to see the real country, get to know the culture first hand, and meet like-minded people.
The industry in greatly dependent on laborers like me, as the work is largely seasonal and not many locals choose to do it. However, alongside the benefits, there are challenges. Before finding employment, I heard horror stories about underpayment, exploitation and abuse. According to Mandy, the working conditions and the employee protection laws have improved in recent years, but backpackers could still find themselves in vulnerable situations. Being in a position of need and unaware of their work rights, it makes it easy for some employers to take advantage of them. So far, the Australian government has done well to combat the exploitation by making necessary changes to the Fair Work Act. Rachel, 27, who’s done farm work both in Australia and New Zealand, says, “Here you’ve got the rights, if you keep your wits about you, you know you can get justice if treated unfairly.”
Recently, the farm life has been somewhat destabilized, from the rising environmental issues including floods and the devastating effects of the raging bushfires, to the violent outbreak of COVID-19. The Working Holiday visa travelers were called upon for help, when the bushfires – which are described as the worst on record, were at its peak in February. Over 46 billion acres have been charred, one billion animals killed, and 3,000 homes destroyed, which prompted the government to make temporary changes to the visa conditions. The employment timeframe has been extended from six months to a full year in order to allow visitors to aid in bushfire recovery efforts and voluntary work in disaster zones has been included into the ‘specified work’ category.
At the moment, farmers face more problems with the current global COVID-19 pandemic. With the borders being shut between the states, many of the workers who were planning to arrive in April for the harvest are now left in limbo. Being classified as ‘essential food production service’, Mandy is very concerned about the incoming workers- “If we don’t have backpackers coming in, we don’t have people to fill the jobs. And if we do employ someone at this time, we must minimize the risk by isolating incomers, we need to be prepared to manage that and that is our biggest problem.”
Mandy’s initial worry about lack of workers has proven to be unnecessary. Since the Australian government has introduced stage 2 restrictions in the end of March (prompting small businesses to close and limiting groups of people to two, amongst others), there has been an unprecedented influx in backpackers fleeing the capital cities and coming into the farm to seek employment. The Federal Government has just announced that those who commit to working in ‘essential industries’ will be able to extend their visa for another year, which eased the anxiety within international community.
I see young people arriving daily in teams from two to five people, begging to be hired as farming is one of the few industries which hasn’t been affected by the restrictions much. The farms offer a safe environment and a steady income, and whilst Mandy is unable to accommodate everyone, she is trying her best to help those in need whilst keeping her workers out of harm. There are now strict isolation rules in place, with those of us already here being moved to a separate accommodation to the newcomers, who are being quarantined for two weeks. The farm’s administration is planning to aid those who they can’t hire by turning a piece of their land into a trailer park, where backpackers, who lost their income or are unable to go back come could temporarily reside. Not every farm is this open to offer help for Working Holiday visa workers, and the future for many of us is unclear and far from secure.