Casual labouring in Australia

Every year for thousands of British travellers a Working Holiday Visa to Australia provides a welcome way to travel around sunny southern climes and earn money at the same time. But, as college-leaver Kitty Donaldson discovered, it is not always that simple

First steps

Cast your mind back to November 1998. A cold, blustery November day in London was made even less enjoyable by queuing for hours at Australia House, only to be fleeced by immigration officials for £25 for a Working Holiday Visa. My thoughts took a pleasant turn to the heat and the beaches and how I’d be able to support myself around Oz by getting casual employment whenever I felt like it. How young, how foolish.


Fastforward to the following March and my arrival at a cramped flat on the northern shore of Sydney Harbour where five of my friends plus various comatose hangers-on were staying. Funds were low so I decided to get a job straight off. We walked around The Rocks, the oldest, most tourist-intensive part of Sydney, and asked about waiting jobs in EVERY SINGLE café. After a while the ‘Godfather’ of local cuisine (it turned out he owned most of the cafes along the harbour’s edge and he was an Italian) offered to give me a trial run in a few days. Yes! I thought. Result.

I turned out to be the worst waitress in the entire world. Ever. Game over after five hours. Oh well, I thought, I’ll branch out and approach the shops along the front. None of them wanted anybody on a Working Holiday Visa, which is only valid for three months at any one employer. By this time I wasn’t sure I wanted a working holiday, either.

Tips for landing casual work in AustraliaKnowing what to pack

Work out what sort of work you want to do when you get there. If you want to wait in a restaurant take black and whites with you. If you want to work on the land take shorts and T-shirt. If you want office work consider bringing a lightweight suit.

Take your experience with you

Prepare your CV before you go and save a copy onto a floppy disk – include any written references. Alternatively, send these files to an address you can access all around the world such as Hotmail or Yahoo!. In that way, even if you lose your luggage you have the necessary information at your fingertips.

It’s a numbers game

Apply for more than one job at a time. It’ll increase your chances of getting a job. You can always turn down anything that doesn’t appeal to you. Be prepared for rejection – many employers don’t want to employ people on Working Holiday Visas.

Get a tax number

Employers will want to know your Australian tax number. Don’t worry, if you earn under a certain amount, you can claim your tax back. In Sydney go to the top of the Sky tower to apply. In other cities ask the local tourist information office.

Hard work

Unless you land on your feet, the chances are you’ll be working on your feet or doing mundane work. But at least you’re working hard in the sunshine.

A new dawn, another brilliant plan

I decided to attack the backpackers’ centre, Traveller’s Contact Point, in the centre of the city as they list jobs and, more importantly, give free internet access which is always a bonus when you’re too poor (read mean) to pay $1 (about 40p) an hour elsewhere. The jobs were mostly for nurses and office temps and, further up the east coast, fruitpickers. I liked the thought of the clean clothes that working as a nurse would provide, but luckily remembered in time that the only medical qualification I possessed was the ability to tear open an Alka-Seltzer packet at speeds invisible to the naked eye. I have smug friends to testify that if you do have office credentials there are a lot of very cushy jobs around. A new plan formed.

Check the paper

I applied for about 10 jobs in the The Sydney Morning Herald and went to four interviews, one of which turned out to be with a Brit who had played rugby for my local team at home. ‘Success’ I gloated on the way home. It was not to be; my employment guardian angel was obviously still suffering from jet lag. My interviewer’s boss vetoed me on the grounds that, (guess what?) I was only on a Working Holiday Visa.

I’ll have a thickshake with that…

It was then that we hit an all-time low. My friend had recently lost her crummy telephone sales job in King’s Cross [Sydney’s equivant of Soho] so one day we went to a well-known international fast-food corporation’s shiny, happy restaurant and begged on our hands and knees for a job.

Did we know we would have to start on lettuce shredding and if we did well we might be allowed to make the chip boxes? We didn’t, but we were prepared to learn. He didn’t think we were what he was looking for. We offered to clean. No, apparently one needs interactive video training to mop floors. We said we were good at watching videos. He sighed and drew out his trump card. He wanted two years commitment and which sort of visas did we have? We left.

Onwards and eastwards

We decided to cut our losses and headed off up the coast. By the time we reached Brisbane, the inevitable had happened and we were resigned to fruit picking. After all, what could be more charming than working outdoors in a verdant rural idyll with merry, rosy-cheeked farmers? They sent us to Bundaberg, where the rum comes from. It turned out it was basil season. That’s nice, we thought.

It’s still dark

At 4.30 the next morning we were on a minibus to the farm. You have to work before it becomes too hot. Think of a field the size of Queensland, then double it and you might begin to be able to envisage what faced us. We had to weed this field on our hands and knees and weren’t allowed to stand up, because that would mean we weren’t working. It got so dire I rang my mother in England. She congratulated me on learning a new skill. I didn’t laugh.

The best laid plans

Fellow labourers told us the main problem with working on all fours was the damage stony ground does to your knees. I thought I’d get around this by using cut-off cotton socks as kneepads. One morning I ventured out into the field wearing green and white striped protective ‘kneepads’. Not only did they prove ineffective, they became so caked in mud that they had to be cut off that night, providing great entertainment for the others. I didn’t think it was nearly so funny as the nest of lethal redback spiders my friend found in a barbecue we were cleaning. Surprisingly, she didn’t find that as amusing as I did.

No deadly spiders in Blighty

Despite the awfulness of manual labour and the numerous futile attempts to find work with a Working Holiday Visa, I did learn a lot in Australia. I appreciate sedentary jobs and the lack of spiders an awful lot more now. And the aches and sunburn have faded into a fondly remembered dream. One to tell the grandchildren.

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