How not to do your Farm Work in Australia

Over the course of 5 months( May-September) of 2016, I somehow managed to complete my farm work for my second year working holiday visa in Australia. These 5 months were tough, not going to lie, but the way I view my farm work is that it's a rite of passage that must be earned to be allowed to remain in this fantastic sunny continent for an extra year. Of course, at the time, I felt like farm work was a modern day exploitation of labour, a type of indentured servitude or get off my continent kind of thing. But I digress.

 It wasn’t quite this bad

It wasn’t quite this bad

For those of you that don't know, in Australia young people under the age of 31 in most Western countries are granted a working holiday visa for one year, and at the end of the year, they have to leave the country (One notable exception is Austrians, who can't get working holiday visas. This makes it difficult to make the classic Austria Australia switcheroo, but it's ok, there's plenty of Swiss and Swedish, and Dutch and Deutsche in Aus to mix up and annoy).

This working holiday visa allows 6 months with one employer, as your focus must be to travel, not to work full time. If you wish to stay an extra year on a working holiday visa, you are required to complete 88 individual days, with multiple employers, or 3 months continuous full-time (30 hours a week) work with one employer. These 3 months are located in certain regional post codes, outside the main cities, and usually in remote rural areas. As Australia is incredibly popular with young backpackers, for the lifestyle, wages, weather, and amazing scenery, around 23% of working holiday visa holders attempt to complete their  regional work.  Oftentimes, backpackers will work for 6 months in one of the big cities, travel for 1-2 months, and then try to complete their farm work in the minimum amount of time. This makes backpackers fairly desperate to find farm work, and fairly vulnerable to exploitation by savvy farmers.

Not me though, I'm just a gobshite who wanted to get his farm work done as quick as possible, and wasn't fussy about doing it. A combination that's the equivalent of sticking a sign on your back saying 'exploit me'. To add a little context, I had spent the first 4 months of my Working Holiday Visa in Sydney knocking on doors, and signing the Australians who grasped my accent up to new charities and electricity companies. I was sick of working door to door jobs, and a few of the lads from college were going travelling the East Coast up to Cairns, so I decided to quit and went travelling for a month. And it went something like this. But when I arrived back to my sister's house on the outskirts of the Gold Coast, fat from goon, with my body feeling like shit, and my bank account as empty as my morals*, I was flat broke. And I decided that this was the time to search for farm work. Bearing in mind, the start of May in Australia is the start of Winter, certainly not the best time to look for farm work. So to prepare, I went to the local library, and made up a quick CV exaggerating my experience,  and began searching. It was 2 week of solid no's in the local area, and no responses online, before I struck what I thought was gold.

*DISCLAIMER: I'd spent 4 months working with door to door sales people, of course their morals wore off on me. I'm better now.

I had been given a recommendation by a local fruit selling stall, to check out a vegetable farm nearby, which I probably shouldn't name for legal reasons. I pulled up with a handful of CVs, covered in sweat from the Corolla's poor excuse for AC and the NSW sun, to see a Asian guy waving his goodbyes to a group of people. His face had the look of unbridled joy similar to when you make it to the toilet for the first time after a pile of pints.

Everything was going up Conor. I went straight to the farm office, and handed in my CV to one of the owners, Anthony. He couldn't believe it, what are the chances someone arrives to a rural farm, the second an employee is leaving, and that that someone was also a backpacker? He was practically rubbing his hands with glee as he got the manager Sam to give me a quick tour of the farm. Sam was what you call a true blue Aussie- she was a bit of a legend, easy going, and greatly downplayed the dangers of venomous animals. After the overview, she explained the situation with the farm. Backpackers were required to live on farm property, and would have all their food and drinks expenses taken directly from their pay check. After I explained that my sister lived a 5 minute drive away, she told me that it was compulsory to live there if I wanted to be hired. Red flag number 1, which I ignored, reasoning that I couldn't be taking my sisters car everyday anyways.  I told her I could start the following Monday, and that was that.

 'The Barn' luxury accommodation

'The Barn' luxury accommodation

The following Sunday I met the big boss, an elderly, frail woman called Eve. Eve was extremely religious for a witch. The accommodation provided was a converted barn shed, lovingly renamed 'The Barn'. There were 2 double rooms and 2 single rooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a living room/dining room. Not too shabby. The Wi-Fi, was only turned on between midday and midnight, obviously for Christian values. Actually, apart from the tendency for the entire bottom level to flood when it rained, the accommodation wasn't bad. I got a single room upstairs so I was happily above the flood. The food, which was also provided, was what is best described as 'low quality'. Plenty of undefined meat mince, long-lasting UTC milk, and varied assortment of white breads. The following things were forbidden: Fruit Juice, Fruit Concentrates, Chicken, Avocado, Burgers that had a defined meat content, Fish, Fresh Milk, Nutella.

Reasons for been banned: Fruit concentrates: "Those backpackers had been drinking it during work hours!". Chicken/Avocado/Meats: "Too expensive for you people". Nutella: "The Europeans get excited and use it too much!". Alcohol: "We had an incident where people made noise at night". Bear in mind, we were a 2 hour walk from the nearest town, and the only way to get there was either hitch a lift with Eve (And put yourself through either a mini conversion therapy or a thinly veiled racist monologue about foreigners, bearing in mind that she was also an immigrant), or walk in, buy a bike, and  cycle the half hour to get the food you want. I reasoned this away as it been expensive to feed so many people, and tried to see it from her point of view. Red flag no 2.

 Views weren't bad though

Views weren't bad though

So I worked the first week, 35 hours, and my job was to harvest, chop and pack Asian vegetables for the local supermarkets. This was grand, I was working with a good bogan Aussie bloke called Wayne. Wayne was from Port Macquarie (The Port), and loved modded Aussie made cars (Commadores), disliked police (pigs), had a collection of guns that Isis would be jealous of (For hunting 'roos), disliked driving licences (Government conspiracy), and, like any true Aussie bogan, was openly racist against Aborigines(bunch a'coons). Wayne was someone I'd describe as a character, with definite illusions of grandiose. He spent most of my first day telling me how he'd escape from cops when they catch him illegally street racing, and how he was by far the best worker on the farm. In fairness, he was good craic, and most of what he said you couldn't heed. But I didn't trust him with a chopping knife, let alone the weaponry he purported to have.

 Huntsman Spider. With that bargain price she threw in a pet

Huntsman Spider. With that bargain price she threw in a pet

After the first week, we got our pay checks. Turns out, accommodation in the converted barn, and a week's worth of poor quality food, costs $80 a day. We were all making $23 an hour, and finishing the week with between $130 and $150 in our pockets after 30-32 hours working, 6 days a week. What a shower. It turns out, you can take money directly from our pay checks, and charge any fee you like, if you call your accommodation a hostel in Australia.  If you do the maths, it works out about $4 an hour.

I mentioned my displeasure to one of the managers, and was changed to a different contract to the rest of them in the barn. I was put on a part time, 35 hour a week contract, making $17 an hour, but only had to pay $60 a day for food and accommodation. I also would have a week's paid holidays saved by the end of my  12 weeks. However, I wasn't allowed to take those holidays all at once, I had to take them every second Tuesday, so that I still worked for the week. Eve's explanation for the excessive charges was that she was doing us foreigners a favour by letting us work for our visas there, and that we should be thanking her for letting her sign us off weekends when we complete the 12 weeks (It's completely legal to sign off weekends as long as you work over 30 hours a week). This almost could have been acceptable, except that we were working alongside Australians who weren't required to stay in her barn, and who were taking home their weekly pay check of $700-800 which they could spend as they please. Good ole Australia, fair go mate. Red Flag no.3.

 Pak Choy yum yum yum

Pak Choy yum yum yum

In fairness, the work wasn't bad. We were up at 6, started at 6:30am, and usually finished between 12 and 1, leaving the afternoon free. My mornings were spent with Wayne chopping buk choy, pak choy, and choy sum, listening to his various ranting speeches, and then the afternoons were spent helping others finish their jobs, weeding, or, one particularly entertaining day, spending 3-4 hours putting stickers on individual vegetable covers.

After a few weeks of listening to Wayne's stories about smoking weed and fighting aborigines in The Port, and chopping heaps of buk choy, I announced to Anthony that I was leaving as my phone was broken, I had holes in my shoes, and I couldn't afford to replace either of them. I'd also got lucky and thought I'd found a different farm job. 5 weeks of farm work down, 7 to go.

Review:

Entertainment Value: *** Wayne had some quality stories, the staff were sound.

Real life Aussie Experience: ** Plenty of Australians working there, but only saw one huntsman and one brown snake in the house.

Monetary Value: Saved $100 in 6 weeks, woop woop.

Searching for farm work for your second year visa? Learn from my lessons:

  • Ask for pay details and expenses before starting work

  • Be picky about where you go, ask people currently working there (Away from staff)

  • If your bottom floor floods because of rain, you need a better drainage system

  • Avoid starting a fight with Port Macquarie drivers, they probably have guns.

All names have been changed to protect the people involved (Mainly me).

Check out part 2 of how not to do your farmwork in Australia here

Have you had a similar experience with your Australian farm work? Tell us in a comment below.