Picture the scene. A couple of chaps from the Australian Immigration Department have been tasked with improving the methods used to decide how long foreigners can work in the country. Like in many nations, this is a controversial and hotly debated topic which requires a solution somewhere between shutting the gates entirely and allowing every Johnny Foreigner and his dog in for as long as they like.
So these two fellas after struggling for a while with this dilemma are sat at a bar – let’s say in Canberra – and one proclaims to the other that he has had a crazy idea. The idea, he slurs, is that anyone on an Australian one year working holiday visa can apply for a second year visa if, and only if, they complete a stint of regional work, that is, farm labour and/or fruit picking. Surely it makes sense to only give second year visas to those hard working or stupid enough to put themselves through a job all Aussies know to be too physically brutal and mentally punishing for any sane individual. That way all those fruit picking jobs that nobody is taking will be filled and the harvest industry will be saved. Two birds, one stone and all that.
Fast forward a few years and those two bogans are probably still laughing at how their drunken scheme got through parliament and at how ridiculously successful it has proven. As I wrote in my previous blog about orange picking, companies like Harvest Hoppers are ripping off naïve young backpackers by the boatload with no signs of stopping. People like myself and my girlfriend come to Australia, travel the East Coast, have a whale of a time and then get to a big city to look for work. We realise there is none and decide to do the “sensible thing” by getting the 88 days of fruit picking out the way so if we do decide to stay for a second year it won’t be a rush later in our first year. Everyone on the backpacker grapevine assures you that “it’ll be tough, but you’re doing the right thing rather than leaving it too late like I did”. The crucial thing to note from that sentence is that those people saying that have rarely completed the full 88 days themselves and are therefore unqualified to justify that it is worth it for the second year visa.
Of course, whether or not it is worth it will be different for each person, their financial situation, job aspirations and place of regional work. I can only comment on our experience, and here are the facts. We are two bright, hard-working early-20s backpackers who have more qualifications and work experience (astrophysics degree, Olympics and radio management, worked all over the world etc etc) than most and plenty of career ambitions. However, whilst travelling it is very tough to also have a decent career job and we understood that it would not be easy to find work that suited us. Obviously orange picking for three months was not a life goal but we gave it a go with open minds and struggled through when the monotony of the labour, long days in 45 degree heat and wages that could barely afford us basic pasta dinners became mentally soul-destroying. All through the 88 days (well, 89, they forced us to stay an extra day) we were unsure that our visas would get signed and even on the last day our boss told us if we were investigated she would lie and say we had not worked for her, meaning our efforts were wasted and if investigated we would be deported. As I mentioned in my previous blog, Harvest Hoppers were worse than useless and we still have not yet applied for our second year visa for reasons I will come to, so I am still unsure if we will stand up to investigation.
Immediately after completing the 89 days regional work, we felt a sense of freedom and excitement at the prospect of being able to get ‘real jobs’ and earn minimum wage again (something we had not even come close to earning half of whilst orange picking). I volunteered in Adelaide as I was keen to build on my events experience at the Olympics. I also worked a couple of other events jobs in Melbourne, whilst applying for a wide variety of jobs and tweaking my CV to match a few different industries I knew I was qualified to work in.
Not being in one’s home country means that you have to pretty much apply for jobs at least a level below what you are capable of, but I think that’s fair enough. What’s not fair enough and what nobody tells you is that you are going to have one hand tied behind your back and that even if you are the best qualified person on the planet; chances are you will end up in casual work. I have literally applied for over 1000 jobs in the last eight months and have had several interviews which always end with ‘we would love to hire you but because your visa prohibits us from employing you for more than six months there is no way we would have time to promote you and integrate you into our long term plan’. The frustration after putting all that time and effort in is understandably immense. So the long and short of it is that I have predominantly worked in bars over the last few months, sometimes helping out with events which is good for my CV in that respect, but at the end of the day it has been mainly just dealing with drunk people. I’ve also been promised full time employment and supervising positions by companies like Delaware North only to wait two months to go through a ridiculously lengthy induction process and then have only three shifts a month, one of which was serving alcoholic ice drinks in the freezing cold in only a t-shirt for three and a half hours which left me ill for days afterwards. Companies like Delaware spend hours training you to treat each customer as an individual and then treat their employees as cattle without a thought for individual performances. Managers have repeatedly said that I had been placed out of position and yet nothing ever happened to better utilise my skills elsewhere in future shifts. I’ve worked very hard at my bar jobs these last few months and done very well according to managers and my tip jar, but it’s definitely not for me.
Now this might seem like a post of regret. It’s not. If I could go back and change anything, I would not. I don’t regret trying something massively out of my comfort zone in fruit picking; I don’t regret discovering skeptical podcasts; I don’t regret becoming ridiculously good at saving, living in a beautiful apartment with swimming pool and gym and being able to afford to travel around New Zealand and Asia next month. And I sure as hell don’t regret getting to experience this incredible country ‘properly’ through a series of awesome experiences – seeing small town Australia Day celebrations, ANZAC Day in Melbourne, making burgers at a FIFA World Cup qualifier at Etihad Stadium or volunteering at the Australian International Documentary Conference in Adelaide.
But if I could change the Australian visa system, I would. Not majorly, because I think locals deserve the best shot at any given job. But foreigners like myself who are over qualified for a job, prepared to submit hundreds of applications, have extreme patience and are willing to work significantly harder than others, should not have to just work casual jobs for the whole time they are here. That’s provided they work their ass off for it of course, I know plenty of people who expect something for nothing and that sure as hell won’t fly when you’re a guest in someone’s country and rightly so.
The flipside is I met a woman from Boston whilst temping the other day who was ‘lucky’ enough to get sponsored, got sucked into a thankless job and is now made to do all the donkey work, knowing if she quits she will be deported. Although having said that, getting sponsored is probably good if you are a plumber, bricky or engineer. In fact, in that case it probably really is a case of ‘living the dream’. You get to do what you would at home, have to work a bit harder but get to earn an Aussie wage (currently very good) and have the satisfaction of having made a working life for yourself abroad.
I’m yet to have that satisfaction despite trying stupidly hard. It was a tough decision to make but now my girlfriend and I have decided that staying here would mean doing so just for the sake of using that second year visa we slaved so hard for. We have decided to make the very difficult decision and head home after our New Zealand and Asia adventures as that is the only way to give ourselves a shot at jobs we deserve. Obviously, travelling and working a non-casual job is always going to be hard. But it shouldn’t be impossible. I just hope that we get to come back in a few years and use our second year visa then, by which time maybe it will be easier to get a job I won’t hate. Let’s hope so…