15 June 2021

Dear Prime Minister, who is safeguarding Working Holiday visa holders from exploitation?

| Hannah Sparks
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Hannah Sparks on a farm with dog

Hannah Sparks on a farm in Queensland during her Working Holiday visa in 2013. Photo: Supplied by Hannah Sparks.

“A year of sun, sea and sand,” I thought as the plane landed in Australia in 2013.

I had finished my degree in the UK and been approved for a year-long Working Holiday visa in Australia the year after.

Both things I considered a victory at 22, especially after saying yes to every shift at the local pub and sleeping on friends’ couches to get me through.

Now I was in one of the best countries in the world, and life was going to be great for the next 12 months.

I split the year between Melbourne and Sydney, and work was easy to find, which seemed like a miracle given we were in a recession back home.

The weather was great and there were so many sights to see: the Great Ocean Road, Sydney Opera House, Bondi Beach and Great Barrier Reef.

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So as the time on my visa ran out, like sand running through an hourglass, the prospect of returning to a rainy UK was somewhat gloomy.

What could I do to buy more time? It’s a potentially risky question every young backpacker asks themselves.

Luckily, there’s a wonderful loophole in the Working Holiday visa which gives you a second year, if you’re prepared to do three months of rural work.

That was my answer to slowing the sand in the hourglass. It would be an adventure, I thought.

Outback Australia, here I come.

However, before I’d lined up any work, I spoke to a few backpackers who had done the rural placement.

Bondi Beach

Bondi Beach in 2013. Photo: Hannah Sparks.

Stories were rife of visa holders being paid next to nothing and sometimes even having to pay their employer; having to hand over their passports during their placement; living in dilapidated accommodation; and being forced to work more than three months because their employer refused to sign-off their paperwork.

My decision changed. If staying meant being exploited, I’d happily return home.

Luckily, my employer offered me sponsorship.

However, while I was working in Sydney, my good friend, Sarah (real name withheld), decided to go for the second year visa and work as an au pair in outback Queensland.

She was excited, the family seemed great and the prospect of living in sunny Queensland for three months seemed even greater.

However, early on it was clear it wasn’t all roses. The family wasn’t as nice as they’d painted themselves out to be, the hours were long, and there was nowhere to go.

Since she’d flown there, the only way into town – which was more than an hour away – was via a lift from the family. I remember her sending photos of the station’s ‘driveway’, a 10km dirt track.

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When it came to leaving, it was the predictable story. The family said weekend work didn’t count towards her quota so she’d have to stay for longer if she wanted her paperwork signed off.

I thought the situation was madness back then, but it was almost the norm.

The danger of the Working Holiday visa placement really struck me recently, eight years on, when it was revealed five backpackers had been sexually assaulted during a farm stay in Peelwood, NSW.

While giving evidence in court, these brave, young women – who were aged between 18 and 27 at the time of the assaults – explained how they felt trapped because they were unable to call for help from the remote farm, and some were relying on their perpetrator to sign the paperwork for their Working Holiday visas.

What I don’t understand is why the government safeguards children through background checks of school and child care staff, but not backpackers who often have no family in Australia, little understanding of the geography, and are sent to isolated places where there’s limited mobile service.

Isn’t it time the government took responsibility for the foreigners it places in a system it promotes and benefits from through tax and by satisfying demand for skilled seasonal labour?

Surely simple background checks of employers approved to sign-off on Working Holiday visas would safeguard from some exploitation.

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Mel Campbell12:05 pm 22 Oct 21

Simple background checks? So background checks on 10,000 businesses who currently employ Working Holiday makers in regional Australia is the solution? Plus of course all their staff. Is that before they can start employing someone? What sort of checks are you thinking of? Inspectors visiting every employment property to check accommodation standards I assume. Do you want police checks as well? So are you seeking a registration process to be created for employers? i.e.they must be registered with Home Affairs before they can employ Working Holiday Makers? Should it then be illegal if a working holiday maker goes to work for anyone not registered? Should the employers in the cities be exempt from checks as there are many times more city employers than regional ones? I’m not saying it’s not a solution but with more than 140,000 (pre-covid)working holiday makers coming to Australia that’s a lot of employers and a lot of checks. Should they be checked every year?

Susanne Page5:02 pm 27 Aug 21

Foolishly I thought the people who took on backpackers were vetted, their accommodation checked and wages overseen to ensure backpackers were treated fairly. I am ashamed at what has come out in the last few years!Amoral and immoral behaviour is not what Aussies want to be remembered for.The Govt has put this scheme in place ,they need to make sure we can hold our heads up and backpackers go home with wonderful memories and stories full of good things.

Diana Williams11:50 am 15 Jun 21

Agree. There is much said about not being able to get workers to do tedious jobs and long hours in seasonal work. Accommodation arrangements for seasonal workers often sees pretty dilapidated, freezing or baking fibro quarters plus exploitative hours and conditions of work. Affects young and older Aussies too. Backpackers are particularly exposed. No wonder there’s a shortage of workers. Have seen this first hand in many areas

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