Abigail Randall shares her experience of rural work in Australia’s outback and offers some useful advice for backpackers… I’ve been met at Darwin airport in a freight truck by a man I’ve never met before, and we’re going to drive nine hours across the state to Arnhem Land, to a town that’s so small it’s hasn’t been established on Google Maps. However it does have a claim to fame; it is renowned for being home to the original Crocodile Dundee, who I’m told was actually a charmless drunk and a thief.
My friends call me crazy, my parents wonder how I do it, but the situation is far from extraordinary in the life of a backpacker. Decent salary and free accommodation packets are easy to come by in the outback, and without the temptations of city life it’s a challenge to rinse all your wages in a few wild weekends.
I’ve undergone outback stints for a small part of my first year visa and for the majority of my second; past experiences have been positive and rewarding. I’ve always headed back to civilisation with a heap of money saved, friends made for life and some fantastically funny memories. Yet my mind still stirs with a mixture of excitement and anxiety for the unknown. Especially as we advance further into into the desert where nothing but tiny aboriginal communities and kangaroo road kill meet the eye. Upon the horizon lie hundreds of three foot tall red dirt termite dens, trees blackened from bush fire and not a single cloud surrounding the smouldering sun.
When we finally arrive at our destination and we pull up to the tiny shop in the lonely town with a welcome sign that boasts “12 Residents. 5 guard Dogs” and when we walk inside and meet the other backpacker employees – who are nice, but exhausted – and when I’m shown to my accommodation – which is shared and filthy – that’s when I start to wonder, Er, I might have made a mistake here…
My boss paid for my flight from Melbourne to Darwin, a gesture which at the time seemed luxurious. It wouldn’t be expected to be paid back – on the basis that I commit to the twelve weeks we had verbally agreed on. On the phone she told me stories of other backpackers “scamming her” for a free flight to Darwin, she regaled me with their mad panic-induced reasons for leaving, and oh how we laughed. Then she emailed me my flight invoice, which totalled nearly $500. Well, I’m not laughing now.
The job details as advertised were as follows:
Five and a half days work for a weekly salary of $528 per week after tax.
You’ll receive free accommodation in a remote location.
Sounds alright, doesn’t it? Well that really depends on what a “days work” is. Let’s assume it’s your 8 hour working day including short (legally allotted) breaks. If that’s what we’re assuming, then yes, its not bad. But it’s safe to say that in this game, its never safe to assume. I grill the other backpackers about our hours and wages.
“It’s like working two full-time jobs” Frankie sighs, which immediately triggers a red warning sign. “We start at 8, and don’t stop until 7.” But you get breaks, right? “Not lately, we’ve been too busy,” she says, with a worrying air of nonchalance. So to sum up, I’ll be enjoying 11 hour shifts without breaks. I make some quick calculations which land me on totals of 61 (hours per week) and 8.6 (dollars an hour) That’s $8.60 after tax, before the tax deduction it climbs up to $11.70. That’s still $4.25 an hour below the National Minimum Wage.
My red warning sign is now flashing and beeping and about to explode. Escape! Escape! Escape!
Is this even legal? Does the free stuff counteract for the low pay? How does it all work?
Unfortunately I don’t have the means to google and find out as internet doesn’t stretch to these parts of the sticks, which means it’s also impossible to book a ticket out of here. It’ll boil down to catapulting my bags on the pavement and sticking my thumb up at the hourly car that passes through.
And what do I say to my boss? “Er, thanks for the plane ticket. I know I only just got here, but I’m afraid this isn’t my cup of tea. Bye now!” After my first shift, I tell her that I had misjudged the situation and apologise for wasting her time. Of course I’ll stay to work off the price of the plane ticket, which is no longer a luxury but an inadvertent debt. If I was to have found my own way to Darwin I would never had paid such an expensive fare. But never mind, I’ll do it for my own moral decorum as I would hate for her to think I was another slack backpacker with a scam plan. If anything, I feel it may be the other way around.
I worked 39 hours (over the space of three and a half days) and calculated that I had paid off the plane ticket – and some – but amazingly I was still expected to continue working for no salary. Needless to say, the situation ended tensely and I was quickly chartered back on the freight truck and driven to the next town four hours west. The day before I left two Irish girls arrived, they were told before they accepted the job that the working days were 8.30am – 5pm. I wonder if I would have been told the same thing had I done my research properly.
I’m not trying to run any small and struggling businesses into the ground, but I don’t think hard working or naive dispositions should be abused either. If you’re looking for work in a rural Australia then you need to investigate every piece of information on the job description, otherwise you’ll end up investing your money and time in travelling lengthy distances, only to feel obliged to commit to the dreaded “verbal agreement”.
After I was dropped off at the information centre in town without a plan, I walked in to a motel, booked a room for the night and handed my CV in at the reception desk. Now here I am working full-time. Yes I receive an all-in-one pay packet, but it’s a fair one; at most I work for 8 hours a day, with breaks, free food, and nice private accommodation.
Sometimes I think about the backpackers in that lonely little shop sweating away for peanuts and living in squalor, and I wonder if they know that just out of Arnhem Land the grass is a little greener…
Where to look
TAW (Travellers at Work) and the Job Shop are the most legitimate and user-friendly websites to use when job hunting in rural Australia. The recruitment agents working for these sites genuinely want to find a fitting employment match for their employer clientele and for travellers alike. It’s reassuring to know you are finding work through a well-reputed website, and if anything goes wrong you’re not alone.
The National Minimum Wage
Australia’s minimum wage is $15.94 per hour or $606.40 per week. Generally employees in the national system shouldn’t get less than this.
We all love the word “free” but don’t get too excited about free accommodation – at the end of the day it’s deducted from your salary, so moving into a sty – a sty you cant even call your own – is disappointing. If you’re planning a 12 week stint, requiring for some privacy or cleanliness isn’t exactly a high-maintenance request.
The fixed pay packet
The mysterious all in one. This means you could be working 40 hours one week, and 60 the next. Whatever the case is you can never be certain about the exact amount you are earning. Do your research and make some calculations, or you may well be earning $11.80 an hour!
The verbal agreement
What if your job doesn’t match up to its advertisement, or if the environment simply doesn’t suit you? When you are travelling you have no ties, and your employer didn’t hire you without knowing this, so don’t stress. Although its never comfortable having to let someone down, its far less comfortable staying in a situation that makes you miserable. You wont be travelling forever, so its important to try and enjoy as much of your time away from home as possible.
Don’t procrastinate – if you’re going to quit, just do it!
The longer you wait the harder it becomes, and what’s the use in flogging a dying horse, anyway? It’s no good for you or your employers: they will appreciate your honesty and any extra time you give them to find a replacement.
If you have any questions about fair employment or legal advise you can contact fair work: www.fairwork.com.au