If you're aged 18 to 30 from an eligible country (eg, the UK, USA, Canada, most Western Europe and Scandinavian countries, Japan, Taiwan and Korea) you can apply for a working holiday visa which allows you to work while travelling for one to two years in Australia. You will earn the same amount of money as an Australian worker and have the same rights. Plus, if you want to stay a second year, you just need to work in certain rural areas or specialist industries during your initial year.
Why work when travelling?
It’s easy to overlook that word ‘work’ in working holiday visa and concentrate instead on ‘holiday’. Yet there are loads of rewards that come with working overseas that are even better than going somewhere on vacation.
Sophie Schmitt, a French traveller to Australia told us she picked fruit and took care of children on her Australian working holiday visa. Her experiences benefited her beyond seeing Australia: “The good thing about the working holiday visa is that you meet other travellers out on the farm, and then you meet them again down the track. There is a sense of community. People share tips. It’s better than just a holiday.
"Working gives you the opportunity to stay longer and discover more. You’re throwing yourself out there, and you learn! It changed my life. When I returned to France, I realised I can find a job anywhere because I thought, ‘I was travelling and working for that long. I can do anything’. It was the best thing I did for myself.”
Sophie does caution though that “Australians are unlikely to give you professional work knowing that you are going to leave soon”. Instead she turned to nannying and child-care agencies in Melbourne, which would call her in the morning to ask if she was free for work that day. Unlike a regular job, where taking a day off is a no-no, Sophie confessed, “I’d just tell them I was unavailable if I didn’t need the money that week!”
Makoto, from Japan, worked in a Japanese restaurant in Sydney, but he also picked fruit and helped teach archery to Japanese kids at weekend camps. He says he loved the Australian work culture. “Making friends and going out with them makes it a good experience here. Everything is so amazing for Japanese people because it is so different from our culture. You have to do everything by yourself – no friends, no family – but even this is a good experience,’ he explained.
What will I do?
Maddy Busch from Collaroy Beachhouse YHA in Sydney says that a lot of travellers are surprised by how much they’ll get paid in Australia for labouring work, painting or gardening. “Workers are usually paid between AU$20 to AU$25 an hour, but you have to balance that with the cost of living. It’s a lot higher here in Australia than some people realise,” she warns.
Debi Forster, manager at Port Lincoln YHA in South Australia, helps her guests find local work but also tells it like it is. Working holiday makers working at a fish factory near her in 2014 were paid $21 an hour, "but it is smelly work. They sorted pilchards, which are frozen into 20kg blocks that they need to lift into a freezer. The smell goes all through your skin and clothes,” she explains. “I tell them, don’t wear any clothes that you want to keep when you leave here. And when they walk in the front door I tell them: ‘Shower!’.”
What will I get paid?
It doesn’t matter where you’re from, anybody working legally in Australia is entitled to the minimum wage. The hourly rate was raised in July 2014 to just over A$16 for full timers and A$21 for casual work. Whereas the minimum hourly wage in the UK is around £6 per hour; the US federal rate is just over US$7. The Australian minimum rate of pay can be even higher depending on the industry and the state. Employers in some types of work, such as hospitality, are currently paid a higher ‘penalty rate’ for working on a Saturday or Sunday. Working on a public holiday can see a worker paid a casual rate as high as A$37.95 an hour.
What are the 'piece work' rates?
Now this is where things vary from the minimum wages. For blueberry picking, Hayden Ryan, accommodation manager at Plantation Backpackers in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, explains that how much you make "depends mostly on the agreed rate with the farm – and how well the crops are doing. If there are not many berries in the crops, you won’t be able to pick as many as quickly. I think a while ago some of the berries were AU$5 per kilo. Picking at an average speed you would make A$17 an hour. But then again you may be slow and make less."
If you’ve signed an agreement to work on a piece rate, the minimum wage doesn’t apply and you’ll only get paid for how much you pick, no matter how long it takes you. For more information on this see www.fairwork.gov.au.
Make sure the job terms are in writing, not just verbal, even if it’s just in an email.
What other jobs are travellers doing?
It’s not all about fish packing and fruit picking in Australia though agriculture is one of the larger employers of backpackers. Your job could involve anything from dog walking or selling tickets at a carnival to household gardening, admin work or bar work.
Tips for finding work
- Think about other employable skills you have such as a driver’s licence, technology skills, or teaching/coaching experience.
- If you are going to work in hospitality where alcohol is served, you need a Responsible Serving of Alcohol certificate, which can be completed online in some Australian states for $60 to $129. See the Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation for more information.
- Consider carefully what you are physically willing to do. Note: mango tree sap hurts!
- Check noticeboards at hostels and on gumtree.com.au.
- Get help editing your CV to make sure it reads easily and well, especially if you're not fluent in English.
- Take enough savings to Australia so you don’t feel compelled to take a job that you really don’t want to do.
Want to stay a second year?
If you want to stay a second year in Australia it pays to work this out early! If you work three months in an approved industry in your first year, you can apply for a second working holiday visa and can then work anywhere you like in Australia. But that's not all, you also get to see Australia’s best asset: its natural beauty!
The most common types of eligible ‘specified’ work that will enable you to get the coveted second working holiday visa are fruit picking, fisheries, construction and mining.
- Check the Harvest Trail for ‘specified’ work jobsearch.gov.au/harvesttrail.
- Keep payslips and any evidence of work you do. You will need to prove that you worked enough hours in the right industry and postcode.
- Check when and where fruit will be in season before making travel plans.
- Jobs in the wineries pruning vines are usually between June and September, while grape harvesting is from January to April.
Queensland offers the greatest variety of fruit and plants to pick including avocados, cotton, custard apples, mangoes and melons.
Sophie worked picking bananas in Queensland with a friend. “Bananas? Never in my life again,” she says. “We were handling machetes from 5am till midday to avoid the heat, but we were so completely knackered by midday that we didn’t want to do anything else.” She also picked lychees. “Green ants would attack us, and they hurt!” she warns. Do your research and talk to other travellers on the road.
Makoto worked a couple of hours outside of Cairns. “I know many people who did picking on a farm and gave up because it is so hard. But if you are lucky you can get good money. I got lucky and got some easier jobs on the farm like packing the fruit and driving the tractor.”
Sorting out your paperwork
You will need an Australian bank account to get paid. This can take some time to organise so you should get on to this as soon as you arrive in Australia.
You will also need a tax file number (TFN). You have 28 days to give your first employer your TFN, otherwise you will be taxed at the highest tax rate rather than the new 15% income tax rate for WHV workers.
You can apply for a TFN in person, or online at www.ato.gov.au but only when you are already in Australia. Employers have to pay 9% ‘superannuation’ (retirement pension) to you too. You should be able to claim this or transfer it home when you leave the country. Ask your employers for a summary showing your total income and the amount of tax and superannuation withheld. There are Australian-based companies that can help with claiming back this money.
Anecdotal evidence suggests Australian customs could check your personal emails and phone messages for correspondence that proves – or disproves – that you are working legitimately under the working holiday visa. You've been warned.
Unfortunately there are some stories of shoddy employers taking advantage of working holiday makers. Thankfully the dodgy employers are the minority and can be avoided by knowing your rights. Knowledge is power.
Know the minimum wage
Sophie says, “When I arrived in Australia I had no idea about the minimum wage. I didn’t mind getting paid low because I loved just being there. But I had one guy trying to pay us just with sandwiches for picking fruit!”
If you come across a dodgy employer who tries to underpay you, it helps if you have somebody on your side. Debi from Port Lincoln YHA says, “I’ve heard about people getting paid only 60 cents an hour from piece work. I had one excited guy here who had just gotten a job from the noticeboard for $10 an hour. I told him: ‘You are not getting $10 an hour’ and rang up the employer to set him straight”.
Get as much information as possible before you agree to a job. Check what the rent will be if you’re staying on a farm and how much the extras cost like laundry or internet access.
Some people have found a job and thought ‘great’, and found out later that they had to find their own transport there or have been asked to do a ‘trial’ and don’t get paid for it.
Don’t assume that just because a job is through a legitimate hostel or their noticeboard that the job itself pays fairly. Ask around to see if someone else knows the employer or who has worked with them before and if they’re legitimate. “I think a lot of people get scammed because they’re looking to move on to another place and will take the first thing available in that area. I’ve heard people getting charged to get dropped off at their jobs and the brokers didn’t tell the workers about it beforehand."
Tips to avoid the rip-offs
- Make sure you are being paid the right amount. Check the Australian minimum wage with www.fairwork.gov.au.
- Get your rate of pay in writing and, if working in agriculture, be clear if you are to be paid on an hourly or 'piece rate' basis.
- Find out about the White Card – a safety requirement for construction work. See Safe Work SA for more information.
- Don’t put down money to ‘reserve’ a fruit-picking job or pay for fruit-picking accommodation up-front.
- The Australian Fair Work Ombudsman recommends not signing up for work with anybody that approaches you at regional airports or bus depots. Do your research.
- For more information on the Australian working holiday visa, see www.immi.gov.au.