While in Australia on a Working Holiday Visa, you are able to live, work and travel the country for 12-months. You can, however, extend your visa for another year by completing 88-days of regional work. For a British citizen, that means you can work in a number of fields – mining, fishing and pearling, construction and the most popular, farming – as long as you are in a regional postcode. I wanted to share a real account of my first experience of farm work so if you’re planning on a Working Holiday in Australia, you might take some positives away from our experience.
Finding Farm Work
Before coming to Australia, we knew we wanted to give it a go. We knew it would be hard work, but we were used to that in our previous jobs. I had already joined a number of Backpacker groups on Facebook, and saw a lot of ads for farm work. “It’ll be easy to find a job,” we thought.
It took us a full month to find our first job on a farm. We were applying for positions like crazy, we even put ourselves out there on Facebook and Gumtree like many people suggest. The only replies we got were from people wanting us to work in their roadhouse kitchens (Alex is a chef) that would “pay us through their farm”. We didn’t want to take the risk.
Getting the Job
Just as we were beginning to lose hope, I kept seeing this one name popping up – Echo.* With so many people talking about it is seemed like a genuine company – something we were finding hard to come by. I found their website, and instantly sent in an application for both me and Alex. It wasn’t long before we heard back. We were given the choice of three induction dates, and picked the earliest one so that we could make our way down to NSW from Gold Coast and not have to miss out on any other stops on the way.
Wednesday was the day of our induction. We had no idea what to expect. Was it a training session? Was it a few hours to tell us all the information we needed to know? Or was it just throwing us into the field all day to test our picking speed? The lack of information for that, should have been our first red flag.
I took to Facebook for answers. I had found a Facebook group that a local Hostel had made to help their customers find farm jobs. But with the biggest farm being Echo, there was always a lot of talk about the job on there – lifts to work, asking about pay day, etc. But there was still no information about the induction.
I decided to post a comment. “What do we need to wear? How long will it be? What exactly does the induction entail? Do we definitely have the job after this?” The first to reply was the hostel, telling me they had never heard of anyone not getting the job after the induction. One question answered at least, and now we knew we actually had our first farm job lined up.
Turns out the induction was just a few hours to fill out paperwork, sit through a training slideshow and find out which crews we were in. Our first day was the following Sunday.
Raspberry picking wasn’t exactly hard. As long as you were gentle with the fruit so that you wouldn’t crush when pulling it off the bush, you were fine. Our first day was full of training. An assistant supervisor ran us through setting up our stations, and told us which row we should pick and told us how to manipulate the branches so that we could get all of the fruit in the middle. When it came to packing our fruit, she showed us what to look out for and sort the good from the bad. On the first day we made 12 punnets at 95c per punnet in only 3-hours. On our induction they told us that an average picker would be able to make 23 punnets an hour. Sh-t we were slow! It didn’t help us that the more experienced pickers jumped on the ends of our row to “help” us.
The next day was the biggest bombshell of it all. Our crew was cut. “What does this mean for us? Have we just lost our jobs? Already?” That really gave us the kick up the arse to pick more than the day before. Thankfully, we were too new for them to be able to fire us. Others weren’t so lucky though.
After that, we were moved to a new crew. They were bigger and faster than our previous crew. This meant our job was always on the line. Fighting against the more experienced pickers to make sure we weren’t at the bottom of the pile and so that we wouldn’t get cut after our initial two weeks were up. Something that we were constantly reminded of by the Supervisor and their Assistants.
As our picking got faster, we were soon (almost) hitting the 23 punnets an hour mark. But the days where still short, and the price per punnet was getting less each day. At our induction we were told that the price would never be less than 80c. The second week in and the minimum price per punnet dropped to 75c. There was not much we could do, and thought that the price might change to a higher rate once we had picked – which most days it did. The next day, we asked the firm price of the previous day – still 75c. But it got worse. That day’s price was 70c.
During our time there we were paid three times. Overall, we managed to earn – between the two of us – $670. Alex’s job in Cairns paid him over $800 a week alone. We were well and truly screwed and there was no way we could reduce our living costs. We were buying the cheapest food that could adequately sustain us and we were staying on the cheapest campsite as close to the farm as possible, to cut down on petrol costs. Our spending was coming out around $300 a week between the two of us – that was the lowest we could have gotten it.
The Last Straw
Spending more money each week for accommodation and food was something we just couldn’t sustain in the long term. With the safety of our job being constantly threatened by the supervisors, we had no idea how many days, never mind weeks, we had left at the farm. It made our decision to leave an easy one.
We only ever found one review of Echo farm, that basically said that you had to be lucky and work during the high season to be able to make any money. Maybe we were just there during the wrong time of the season, and maybe later on in the year there would be more work. But we just weren’t willing to take that risk. Who knows how many weeks we would have had to wait before it picked up for us. It’s a great second job for locals, and even we applied for a number of second jobs in the area. They wouldn’t take backpackers. I even joined a number of community Facebook groups, offering to do odd jobs such as painting and gardening, just for a bit of extra cash. Nothing got back to us. I guess luck just wasn’t on our side.
*name has been changed