As mentioned in my post The Trials and Tribulations of a Working Holiday Visa, the working holiday visa in Australia is quite different from what you experience in the UK. In the UK, you have two full years to live there, in which you can work at the same job throughout with full coverage health care! In Australia, you can live there one year, in which you can only work maximum six months per employer with no health care benefits (depending on nationality), AND if you want to stay a second year, you have to complete 88 days of farm work in regional Australia. The short end of the stick huh?
If you are considering a second year in Australia, my first piece of advice is to get your regional work done asap. I thought five months was plenty of time to complete 88 days of work, and I was extremely wrong. Especially during the Australian winter when there is less harvesting work combined with a substantial competition for roles. Sure there are numerous farm work jobs out there, but many are scams or dangerous, especially for solo female backpackers. Being in an isolated area without a car and people you know is quite the risk, one that I was not willing to take.
It took me a whole month of looking for work online and stressing out of my mind while in Melbourne before I realised I needed to bite the bullet and move to a town with the best odds of having work during the winter season, Mildura. ‘You can’t win the lottery without buying a ticket’.
Topics covered in this post:
- Moving to Regional Australia
- Applying for Work
- The Farm Work (Factory Work)
- Check Your Privilege
- How I Stayed Sane
- Managing a Long Distance Relationship
- Tips for Applying for your Second Year WHV
- Looking Back
Moving to Regional Australia
This was gut-wrenching for me. For my last night in Melbourne, I stayed at my boyfriend’s place. It was hard not to see everything we did as ‘the last time’. Stephen and I were facing the start of a long-distance relationship with no guarantee of light at the end of the tunnel. If I didn’t succeed in getting my 88 days completed before my visa ran out, I would have to leave the country and we would consequentially need to break up; it’s one thing to attempt long distance in the same timezone, another to be halfway around the world from each other.
We had a conversation about what I was about to face and how we would get through it together. Stephen exceeded my expectations of a supportive boyfriend; cuddling me, letting me cry, talking through my feelings, making me laugh, and doing simple things for me like making my breakfast. He couldn’t guarantee I would succeed, but he certainly made me feel like I would.
The train and bus journey to Mildura took the whole day but was manageable. I had two seats to myself so I could continue to cry in private. I just wanted to get there already so I could find work and start racking up those days.
The hostel owner picked me up from the bus station and the shock finally hit when I arrived at the accommodation. I’m used to staying in nice hostels while travelling, but this was my new home and it was far from glamorous. My OCD and germophobia were truly going to be tested.
After dropping off my bags in the room, I headed to the hostel owner’s office to speak about the odds of getting a job. I now only had four months left to complete a solid three months worth of work and I was terrified. He didn’t have any good news for me either, “There are no jobs at the moment. The winter season has been delayed due to the warm weather and droughts. Also, those who’ve been here the longest are at the top of the waitlist. I’m not going to sugar coat it for you Sam, the odds are slim, but you did the right thing by coming here. When you’ve moved to the top of the list and I get notified of a job, I’ll let you know.”
Back in my room, I started sobbing and called Stephen. He was incredibly supportive and comforted me enough that I felt ready to face the next day. There were still waves of emotion, but I felt better equipped to handle them, enough so to get a good night’s sleep.
Applying for Work
Things started to get better the next day, despite still having spells of crying out of fear. I explored the town during the day, sat by the river, and got to meet more people at the hostel, which served me well.
That afternoon, I was sitting with some people outside when I was given a tip to apply for a job at the local fruit packing company via their website and then go to their office the next day with my resume. As far as 88-day farm work goes, that company is known as the best-case scenario. You’re indoors, not doing physically gruelling work, paid minimum wage (as opposed to – what should be illegal – piece-rate), and it is a proper company (not some shady scheme).
After applying online, I responded to their email receipt with my resume. Three hours later, I received a call to come in for an interview the next day. Suddenly, a weight had been lifted. No one at the hostel could believe it. They’d been applying continuously for weeks and it only took me a few hours. I was so relieved that I rested well that night, fate was on my side.
The Farm Work (Factory Work)
Though most of the jobs at the factory revolve around boxed oranges, I was on a team that worked on the bagging line. It was a miracle without knowing because our team never had a day off, which helped me achieve my 88 days on time. The majority of the workers would have days off when it rained, as it affects the supply of oranges to the factory. Had I been on another team, this would set me off a few weeks, which I did not have the flexibility to work with.
Another perk of being on this small team was the ability to negotiate sticking to the morning shift (7:30am start). Most people had to rotate; two weeks on the morning shift then two weeks on the night shift. I am a morning person and thrive in routine, plus I didn’t feel safe walking home in the middle of the night and in the middle of nowhere by myself. I still had to walk in the dark in the morning, but I felt like there’d be fewer rapists and murderers out at 7am. Luckily, a coworker lent me her bike for getting to work, much to my parents’ relief as well.
I was assigned the role of a sorter/grader. Simply put, I picked out the ugly and rotten oranges, so they didn’t end up in the bags you buy at the grocery store. Just so you know, they end up in your juice instead! The 8-10 hour day shifts were spent staring at millions of oranges rolling on by; easy to get dizzy!
I was given a sorting partner, which helped the days go by. There are no phones (therefore no music) allowed in the factory and you really aren’t supposed to talk either. Eight hours a day of scarcely uninterrupted time with your thoughts. It allows even a positive person like myself to unavoidably deal with pestering negative thoughts. In turn, it became time for mindfulness; learning how to cope when negativity comes about.
The days are broken up with two paid 10-minute coffee breaks and one unpaid 30-minute lunch break. About seven weeks in, I finally had the courage to ask to go to the washroom during the working periods, which allowed for some extra break time. It seemed so ridiculous to ask for permission to pee! I was far from my normal world.
We worked six days a week, so this meant 50 hours of work. There was also a brief period when the season ramped up and we worked 60 hours; it was great for the paycheck. Regardless of your role, you get paid minimum wage (which is $19.49 in Australia) and earned time and a half on Saturdays. As mentioned earlier, this was quite a lucky job to have as far as farm work goes!
Check Your Privilege
I was in a position I’d never thought I’d be in; living in a small rural town, in a hostel with kitchen cockroaches, working in a factory, and sorting rotten oranges from good ones every day. I would be extremely concerned for myself if I knew of the position I ended up in. It only took a few weeks of working in the fruit factory and talking to a range of employees, for me to become ashamed of that closed-minded attitude.
First of all, I was extremely fortunate that this was only a temporary thing. I had a privileged life to go back to as soon as I completed my 88 days. Being in a section of the factory where I was the only ‘backpacker’, meant I was surrounded by locals. I’d spoken to a woman that had no family to go home to, a divorced woman that had three children where the father would only send $15 a week in child support, and a woman with a husband to help take care of the kids, but never got to see him, as she covered the day shift and him the night.
The people I worked with don’t get to escape this life when the orange season is over. In fact, when the orange season is over, they struggle to find work. Throughout their lives, they’ve experienced many stints of unemployment and uncertainty, and most of the seasonal work is physically straining with a horrible wage. With bills to pay and children’s mouths to feed, they feel blessed to have a job in an orange packing factory for a few months. It’s easy manual work, decent pay, indoors, and a reliable company compared to their other jobs.
I vowed not to complain about my regional work circumstances from that point. Even as a backpacker, I was very lucky to have found a legitimate role where I could get my 88 days of work done in one go with a good paycheck.
How I Stayed Sane
Despite the poor state of the hostel, I found myself growing accustomed to it; I had no other choice but to do so really. Fortunately, I had two great roommates. They were up for a good chat, kept the room clean, and were respectful of sleep schedules, etc. They were on the night shift, so during the week, we were mostly passing ships; they’d be off for work at 6pm, I’d be asleep at 9pm, they’d get in at 4am, and I’d wake up for work at 6:30am.
After work, I was able to get a good routine going. It took a few weeks of getting used to the long tiresome days, but since my shift ended around 4pm, I started to take advantage of my free time in the evening. My hostel was around the corner from the local library and gym/pool. I signed up for a membership to both.
Exercising became crucial for my mental and physical health (we all know how endorphins work). There were Les Mills classes with a wonderfully peppy instructor, who chatted with everyone. This is where small towns really shine, the community spirit. I would participate in the evening Body Pump and Barre classes. Days without classes I’d do my own circuits.
The library was another saviour. I had access to numerous bestsellers. Finishing a book a week, I dove into some fabulous stories. My favourites included One Day, Daisy Jones & The Six, and Everything I Know About Love.
Sundays were my self-care days, free from factory work. The typical routine was to wake up early so I could do laundry before everyone else woke up (there was only one machine in the hostel for 30 people), go for a walk to the river, call my parents on the walk, treat myself to a nice cafe brunch, do some writing, grocery shop, meal prep, gym, read, and call Stephen.
Another thing that helped my sanity was abstaining from alcohol. The hostel had a big drinking culture, but I couldn’t think of anything worse than having a hangover in a factory. I opted for nights of reading and early hangover-free mornings. Yes, I probably isolated myself a bit, but I did what I had to do to take care of myself in this bizarre circumstance. I’d be back on the wine in Melbourne and it was a good test to see how three months of being sober would impact my health, weight, skin, etc. The result? Hard to tell since I also exercised every day, ate a clean diet, and didn’t wear make-up for three months!
Managing a Long-Distance Relationship
Adjusting my relationship to long-distance was daunting. Before leaving, I couldn’t cope with the all-consuming thought of missing him. Of course, the beginning was the most challenging. I missed every bit of my normal life; I was further out of my comfort zone than I intended to endeavour. That being said, Stephen became a pillar of support who I could call on for comfort. Through the increased necessity of communication, our relationship grew stronger than we could have imagined.
We also went in with good advice from friends who managed a period of long-distance, stating “Your emotions will be heightened and you’ll find yourselves getting into arguments, but just know the frustration isn’t at each other, it’s at the situation you are working through together.”
Before I left, we agreed to see each other every four weeks, totalling three visits while I was away. Since I was six hours away from Melbourne by car, we arranged one weekend visit a month. He drove up to see me twice and on the middle visit, I took the overnight bus to Melbourne on a Friday, back on Sunday. It helped to have these milestones to look forward to, so I could compartmentalise my time away into four-week chunks. Between visits, we spoke every day and dedicated Saturday nights for long calls, so it felt like a date night.
I don’t wish long-distance on any couple, but feel comfort in the fact that on some occasions, it can ironically bring you closer!
Tips for Applying for your Second Year WHV
Document everything. You will need a fair amount of proof that you completed your 88 days of farm work correctly.
In addition to saving all your payslips (which are crucial), make sure to save hostel receipts, bus tickets, and job application forms. Heck even keep receipts from the local grocery store. Every bit helps. People have scammed the system in the past, so they are cracking down.
I also recommend tracking every hour of work you complete per day. This will help ensure you meet the minimum requirement of work per week. If you work five full working days per week, you are allowed to count seven days of work for the week. This will also help you count down how many more days/weeks remain. Just in case there is an issue with some of the days, do more than 12.5 weeks of work, do 14 minimum to be safe (if your visa deadline allows).
Each week I wrote a diary entry of what occurred at the factory, at the hostel, and in the town. Despite the valuable life lessons of this experience and my constant focus on the silver lining, there were so many times of stress, sadness, and fear. I came across quite a few mad characters and would love to share all the crazy things I witnessed, but I am not looking for a lawsuit. Let’s just say small towns have a lot of stories. In hindsight, a lot of the scary situations are quite laughable now that I am far removed and safe, but man, it feels good to be back in the city and living my normal life!
For those of you about to head off on your 88-day expedition, good luck! You will learn a lot about yourself. But make sure you stay safe! Feel free to ask questions below.