Absence makes the heart grow fonder


When you live in Canada, and your boyfriend lives in Australia, the heart-strings tug heavily to entice you to travel across the Pacific.

That’s how it was for Bronagh Smyth, a young Canadian woman who joined her Canadian-Australian boyfriend in Adelaide in July last year.  Like a lot of her friends, the idea of a working holiday trip to Australia had been under consideration, but it was love that made it actually happen.

A valuable helping hand

Having support with accommodation and transport from her boyfriend and his family was a big bonus for Bronagh.  Access to a loan car from the family initially, made finding and attending work much easier.  She had found out that public transport was simply not available at the times, and to the places, where work was available.

After working for a while and having some cash of her own, Bronagh bought her own car so is now fully independent.

The good, the bad and the ugly!

Because she was keen to stay as long as possible, Bronagh realised she needed to get three months’ work in jobs that qualify, to enable her to stay a second year under her Working Holiday Visa.  She was astute enough to figure out that if she achieved the 88 days necessary as quickly as possible, she could lock in the second year early in her stay.  Getting sufficient work in a limited time towards the end of her visa was a worry she just didn’t want to have hanging over her head.

Information about job opportunities is plentiful, with websites, blogs and social media all offering advice about farm work in Australia.  Bronagh told us some bad stories she had heard.

“Travellers not being paid, being forced to stay in over-priced accommodation in order to get a job, and other horrible things”, were Bronagh’s feedback.  However there were also people who told her stories of great experiences.  So she was prepared for the worst, but hoping for the best experience possible.

Striking gold – finding the Harvest Labour Service

To find a job Bronagh looked at backpacker websites, job boards, and used word of mouth from friends and their networks.  She struck gold when she found the Harvest Labour Service (HLS) office in Mt Barker, in the Adelaide Hills, just a half hour drive out of the city.

The HLS office is one of eleven across Australia.  Each looks after a region with a large horticulture industry.  They are all funded by the Federal Government, as is the National Harvest Labour Information Service (NHLIS).  MADEC operates the Mt Barker office as well as the NHLIS and provides strong support for the local service.

Mark McAllister is the Harvest Officer at Mt Barker and his office services the Adelaide Hills and Southern Vales areas.  The main products grown are cherries, apples, winegrapes and strawberries, with a few vegetable farms also operating.

Mark remembers referring Bronagh to her first job on a vegetable farm working in a packing shed.

“She stood out as a very switched-on and capable young woman that I did not hesitate to refer to the grower I was coordinating workers for”, Mark recalls.

First a ‘cruisy’ job, then the reality of piecework

Bronagh described her first job.

“Working indoors in a shed, out of the crazy weather you can get in ‘The Hills’, sorting brussel sprouts on an hourly rate, was simply amazing.  The work is very repetitive, but if you can get past that it was a very cruisy job.”

Picking grapes on piecework was another matter.  Piecework is where payment for the work is not by the hour but by the quantity of fruit picked.  In the case of grape picking, payment is made per bucket of grapes filled.  There are strict rules that govern how minimum piecerates must be calculated, and an employer must provide in writing the rates they offer before work commences.

Although an experienced and skilled worker can make much more than the hourly rate, someone learning, or without enthusiasm, can find themselves making very little indeed.

Before starting that job Bronagh was positive.

“At first I was very optimistic working piecerates, believing that if I worked hard I could earn a lot.  After the first couple of days I quickly realised that I needed to work ten times harder than I already was.  Amongst the backpackers I wasn’t slow, but I couldn’t claim to be the fastest either.”

It can be done – making money on piece rates

Bronagh saw what could be done however, with one local lady in their work team earning over $30 an hour – but that lady had many years’ experience.  None of the backpackers had that experience, and with the season only lasting for a matter of weeks, they would not get close to being an average competent worker during that time.

“Overall I found the piece rate system very hard and frustrating to pay bills and save for travels.  Any money I made was spent on groceries, bills and transportation with little left over.  If I wasn’t desperate to get my 88 days I would not have stuck with it, but it was the only work available so I had no choice”, she said.

Fitness is essential

Grape picking in summer is hot work and Bronagh soon realised that drinking lots of water is essential to avoid heat-stroke.  Bending and twisting amongst the grape vines to find the bunches, and walking a long distance over the day, makes this type of work hard on the body.  Good fitness is essential.

Overall Bronagh thought her employer was good, supplying lots of drinking water and keeping the ‘bucket boys’ busy to ensure the pickers were not slowed down waiting for empty buckets to fill.  However she felt the piecerate was not enough for how hard the work was.

The holistic picture

Bronagh has learnt a lot since being in Australia and is very realistic.

She advises; ”be prepared to work hard and listen to instructions.  Each employer has different expectations so it’s important to meet them, or you will be let go.  To us backpackers this regional work is a requirement to get a second visa, but to the farmers we work for, this is their livelihood!  It is so important to understand and respect that some jobs are not going to be your cup of tea, but it is work that needs to get done.

“The MADEC harvest office was a huge help with connecting me to the jobs I completed, and without that resource I may not have found work as quickly as I did.”

Who loves brussel sprouts?

With the new winter season approaching, an opportunity to return to the brussel sprout farm came up.  Bronagh grabbed it with both hands and she was welcomed back – farm employers love experienced workers.

By the end of her first year she had done many more days of farm work than she needed to qualify, with 122 days chalked up.  That provided her with some extra savings to do some travel.

Sunrise over beautiful vineyards – the silver lining

Overall Bronagh’s experience so far has been positive.  Although the grape picking work was hard, a highlight was seeing the sunrise every day over the vineyards of the beautiful McLaren Vale wine region.  She uses the weekends when not working to travel to different parts of South Australia, with camping at the Innes National Park at the southern tip of Yorke Peninsula the best experience so far.

Bronagh hopes for more travel across Australia, then try to land a job in the marketing and event-management field which is her qualification.