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Walkabout visa: My time doing rural farm work

Niamh Walsh, of Galway, at the farm where she worked in Bodalla, rural Victoria.

It’s 5.30am in Bodalla, New South Wales, almost 400kms from Bondi Beach.

My alarm goes off.

I get up, get dressed and head out the door without a glance in the mirror.

I’m heading to work but it doesn’t matter if I look like I’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.

It’s not like I’ve anyone to impress; unless you count a couple of hundred cows.

Like thousands of others, I’m here earning my second year visa.

Last year, the Australian Department of Immigration (DIAC) issued 14,833 Working Holiday Visas to Irish citizens.

Of these, just under half applied to stay for a second year. The 417 Visa requires 88 days of regional work to qualify for a second year.
unskilled worker shortage

The idea being that fit and capable young people provide a temporary solution to Australia’s ever-increasing shortage of unskilled rural workers.

It’s still dark out as I make my way towards the building where two people are already hard at work. They’ve been up since 4.30am. I rinse out a couple of buckets and collect some milk from the vat for the 20-odd calves that have become my adopted babies in the last few weeks.

Working on a dairy farm is probably one of the easier ways to get your visa extended. While any farm or labouring job completed within Government-designated regional postcodes counts as part of the required 88 days, much of the work out there is a lot tougher than this. I feed each calf individually, letting them suckle two litres from a rubber teat on a bottle. In the process I get covered in poop, pee, saliva or milk; on a good day it’s all four. If I’ve time, I’ll help the two guys finish the milking.

At this late stage of the morning, it generally involves hosing down the walls of the dairy; cleaning the excrements all 150 of the ladies have kindly left during their morning’s work.

Once done, I go back inside and only then do I think about breakfast for myself. It’s not even 8am.

While fruit picking seems to be the most common work undertaken by Irish backpackers, the mundane work for pathetic pay is resulting in more and more people choosing to work on a family farm.

A quick glance at community website Gumtree.com.au will throw up hundreds of adverts from Irish workers looking to secure work that doesn’t involve fruit and a basket. Dairy work may involve 5am starts, seven days a week but regional work certainly has its upsides. It gives you the opportunity to save a large amount of money quickly.

Farm hands can expect to earn anything up to $600 per week on top of their bed and board, while spending opportunities are few and far between in such a rural setting. It’s also the experiences you have and the things you see which are drawing in the workers. Where in Sydney or Melbourne would you have the opportunity to speed through the outback on a quad or a ute? How many of us can say they’ve helped deliver a calf or a lamb?

And it sure beats Bondi Beach for its tanning abilities.

Like most good things, there are, of course, a number of drawbacks to working on a farm. Insurance is the primary concern for most. Workers Compensation generally doesn’t extend to backpackers working for their bed and board or off the books.

Recently, a young man in Victoria was killed by a kick from a dairy cow, so you need to be aware that accidents can occur. Anyone thinking of taking up a job offer should always ensure their own travel insurance covers them should they get injured.

:: Get Insured

Another option is volunteering on an organic farm. Willing Workers On Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a scheme involving working on an organic farm in exchange for bed and board. WWOOF workers can purchase a policy for $25 which covers third party liability and personal accident, injury and illness.

However, the liability is limited and is only covered by farms registered with WWOOF Australia.

The very nature of the work is also a natural deterrent. People expecting a regular nine to five, Monday to Friday job can be in for a shock.

Getting up in the middle of the night to birth a difficult heifer is not an uncommon occurrence. Nor is sitting down to have your dinner and realising the cows have broken into the neighbour’s paddock. You have no choice but to put down your knife and fork and run for the ute to get them rounded up before they mix in with the other animals.

All job adverts should also come with the disclaimer ‘No squeamish people need apply’. This is not a job for those with a delicate disposition. You see births, deaths and all the bodily fluids in between. I’ve had a calf die from diarrhoea, watched a cow have its eye removed and helped pull out a calf that was too big to come naturally. It’s not something everyone can stomach but you need to be prepared for everything.

Most backpackers see regional work as a hassle. And in some ways it is.

You’re uprooted from your cosy city life and thrown into a world that most of us would rather not know existed.

Scams have emerged to try to circumvent the rules. Two years ago, DIAC launched a major clampdown on an Irish-run racket where backpackers were charged money to ‘fix’ a second visa without actually doing the regional work. Dozens of young Irish had their applications for a second visa rejected because of ‘inconsistencies’ on their forms.

If you want to stay on, you’re better off just getting on with it. You work long and hard, and no one will thank you. Because these people have been doing this their whole lives.

They were born on the farm, grew up on the farm and many have known nothing else but farm life.

They’ll be here long after you’ve gone; training in the next bunch of backpackers.

It’s a means to an end and an experience that most backpackers come to remember fondly.

:: A quick guide to the Working Holiday Visa

If you’re planning to work in Australia, you will need a visa. The Working Holiday Visa (417) is available to Irish and British passport holders between the ages of 18 and 30.

You can apply for this visa online (see www.immi.gov.au/e_visa/working-holiday.htm) and track its progress. The application fee is currently $270 (or €209).

Once you’re in Australia, you can apply for a further 12 months on your visa.

Some businesses can offer you this visa packaged up with – for instance – insurance, a bank account and Australian sim card but beware, you can wind up paying up to €100 for something that you can easily do yourself for free. While the Department of Immigration website has plenty of information, there are no immigration officers at the Australian Embassy in Dublin so if you want direct information, you can find yourself being referred to London.

Some Ireland-based visa firms run information seminars on moving to Australia. If you’re planning to attend one of these events, make sure organisers have registered migration agents on their staff.

Using a Migration Agent

Many people use migration agents to complete and lodge their applications. The best agents to use are those registered with the Migration Agents Registration Authority (MARA).
MARA is an Australia-based authority, which checks the bona fides of businesses offering migration advice for money. To be registered with MARA you must be an Australian citizen or permanent resident.

In Australia, it is a criminal offence to offer immigration advice without being registered. However, agents outside Australia operate without regulation, so you need to proceed carefully.

In Ireland, the situation is particularly treacherous as there is no regulation at all governing the migration agent industry.

Anyone can set up an attractive website, declare themselves experts and start selling migration advice. Registered agents in Australia have told us that many clients come to them after wasting time and money with agents overseas, especially in Ireland.

How much is too much?

Some migration agents in Ireland charge in excess of €4,000 for a permanent residency application. This is excessive. Shop around for quotes and don’t be afraid to contact migration agents in Australia for a quote. Much can be done online now.

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