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Working Holiday Makers in Oz

The Irish like to say that there are more Irish people in Sydney, Australia than there are in Ireland; with the number of Brits riding the trams in Melbourne, it seems true of them, too. Is everyone at the beach in Perth, German? During my working holiday in Australia it sometimes seemed like there were more backpackers swarming across the continent than actual Australians.

The reason so many backpackers go to Australia is because it’s easy. A big country with a small population, Australia needs backpackers to fill thousands of employment vacancies. Everything – getting a visa, finding a job, dealing with money – is simple. Plus, Australia has something for everyone: a pulsing nightlife in Sydney and Melbourne, the resort lifestyle of the East Coast, and a dizzying variety of untouched landscapes in the center and west. No matter how you want to spend your time, some part of Australia will be right for you.

Besides a passport, you need a visa to work legally in Australia. The Working Holiday Maker visa (apply online) is available to travelers between the ages of 18 and 30 from certain countries, including Canada, the UK, Ireland, Germany, and China. The full list of countries is on the website. Australia is in the process of testing a visa for Americans.

The WHM visa is good for a year, and you can work for each employer for up to three months. Due to the high demand for workers to help with Australia’s harvest, anyone who works three months or more at an agricultural position can renew their WHM visa for a second year. Even if you’re not keen on apple-picking, it might be worth toughing it out to extend your travels.

There’s one other piece of paper you’ll need, and that’s a Tax File Number (apply online after you’ve arrived in Australia). Employers will require that you have one before you begin work.

Money Matters
You can’t escape it, even overseas: you’re going to be taxed, and it’s a doozy – 29% of anything you earn is going to the government. When I was in Australia, us backpackers were fuzzy on the actual taxation rules. Some people checked off the ‘resident of Australia for tax purposes’ box on their tax forms, some people didn’t. The truth is, the letter you receive with your Tax File Number spells it out: ‘You are not a resident of Australia for tax purposes.’ However, there’s a loophole; if you spend more than six months living (renting an apartment rather than in a hostel or other temporary accommodation) in one place, you can check off that little box, entitling you to a much better tax rate.

Australian wages are higher than they would be for similar jobs overseas. I was shocked that a manual labour job that might earn me $8.50 an hour in Canada was paying me $15.00 an hour in Australia. My food and lodging costs were only a little bit more expensive than at home, so even after the tax gouge I was earning enough to live (and party) on.

Most employers will deposit your pay into a bank account. Learn from my mistakes: research the bank account options before opening one. I signed up for a special backpacker’s account and didn’t realize until later that they were charging me $1.00 every time I used my debit card. I shut the account and started a new one where I got all my transactions for $3.00 a month. Most Australian banks will make it easy for you to open an account with them once you’ve arrived; bring a passport and another piece of ID into any branch.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
I wanted to taste-test a variety of jobs, so I picked grapes, worked as a night-cleaner at a supermarket, and staffed the front desk at a small-town hotel. No matter your interests, work and travel-wise, you can find something suitable. The most important thing to consider is timeliness. Looking for a tourism job? Visit a place during high season. Harvest positions flare up with the seasons and disappear quickly; the season for peaches in Tasmania is different than that for mangoes in Queensland.

In big cities the most common opportunities are in temp office jobs, construction, and restaurants/bars. I met a man in Sydney who sold life insurance, while an Irish woman traded on her accent to work at one of Sydney’s many Irish pubs. In Brisbane a friend of mine had two construction jobs and an evening bartending position, all at the same time. You could find yourself working at a hostel, an Internet cafe, or holding a stop sign to direct traffic. (In Sydney you can take a short course that teaches you the tricks of that trade). Nanny/au pair work is available, too.

Smaller towns are often chronically under-staffed. I wasn’t qualified to work in a hotel, but the northwestern town where I applied was desperate and willing to train me. Then there’s the big rural opportunity, the Australian harvest. Make no mistake; this is tough work, with long hours in blazing heat. Finding an agricultural position that pays by the hour is the safe choice, since working for piece-rate (how many of an item you pick or plant) can either be wildly rewarding – I got my pace up at grape-picking to $20 an hour – or depressing, as a bad harvest could leave you making $8.00 a day.

Station-hand gigs will give you a glimpse of the real outback, but sometimes require proficiency with horses or all-terrain vehicles. There are courses that teach backpackers these skills and then help them find a job. Then there’s the harvest of the sea: friend of mine spent nine weeks on a prawn-trawler, earning a share of the catch and wrestling sharks and turtles back off the ship’s deck.

Nurses are in high demand in Australia. There are agencies that will set everything up for you, placing you in hospitals around the country according to your travel itinerary. There are also a number of other visa options available for nurses, both longer and shorter term.

Lastly, a woman can earn a lot working as a ‘skimpy’, an outback barmaid who pours beer while clad only in her underwear. Agencies will rotate you between outback pubs and pay your travel and lodging. To some travelers this job sounds demeaning, but others see it as a good way to see the country and earn high wages (in some cases as much as $35/hour). I spoke with a British girl who worked as a skimpy in Western Australia for months and she said she never regretted choosing that line of work.

How to find work
If I listed all the ways to find a job in Australia, or even just the websites that list jobs, I?d need to write a book. Start before you go by browsing the web; for example, this site is a good way to get an idea of what’s available in agriculture work. Try searching for employment agencies for the big cities. Sydney, Melbourne and Perth all have backpacker info centres with job listings and agents who can help you search for a job.

Personally, I relied on word-of-mouth for all my jobs. Other travelers talk about past or current work while the staff and bulletin boards in hostels are great sources of information. Remember to make a resumé and bring copies with you. This will save you frantically paying for computer time in a café while you try to remember all your qualifications.

All work and no play make your trip a dull one
The rules of the Working Holiday Maker visa state that all work should be ‘incidental’ to your travels, by which they mean you should be working as a way of funding further travels, not trying to pad you bank account back home. Put the emphasis on Holiday and the Working will be fun, too.