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••• The International Writers Magazine -

Does The Australian Working Holiday Visa Offer Nothing But A False Pretence?
• Henry Kauntze
A bed of roses for world travellers?

Austrial visa

When I was living in London earlier this year, I found myself sat in a barbershop chair talking to a man called Tom. After we discussed how much I wanted off the back and sides, I asked him how long he’d been cutting hair for. “Since I got back from Australia,” he replied. Deciding not to study at university, Tom told me how, when he heard a friend of his was moving down under, he spontaneously agreed to join and ended up living and working there for four years. By the time he’d finished his story and my haircut, I’d decided. That evening at home, I started organising my visa application. In October, I flew from Heathrow to Sydney, and as I undergo the sixth week of my year abroad, I’ve begun to reflect on my experience here so far and how it compares to my feelings towards Australia as a prospective working holidaymaker.

Being a lifelong British resident, I’ve always held a fond preconception of Australia derived mostly from Men at Work lyrics and scenes from Crocodile Dundee, a preconception which I believe most Brits share. Beyond the ‘80s cultural stereotypes, I think it is fair to say that Australia is viewed among young people as a land of opportunity, offering a work life balance unparalleled by most other countries. It’s a place where people wake up earlier to watch the sunrise as part of their commute, where coffee shops are always independent, and where healthcare systems are nothing short of world class. Outside of the big cities, the Australian outback is often perceived as an arcadian idyll by those more partial to open space, and many take it upon themselves to traverse its deserts and rural towns. Others tour the East Coast. Regardless of how you spend your time in Australia, more often than not it is made possible by the 417 Working Holiday Visa, a subclass that has allowed foreigners to temporarily live and work in Australia since the ‘70s.

The scheme invites applicants between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five to experience the Australian style of life, supporting their travel funds via short term employment for, initially, twelve months, but it is possible to reapply for a second and third year abroad if the applicant so wishes. What I’m interested in, though, is not the success of the scheme, but how it can foster a misrepresentation of the life a temporary resident can expect here. I believe that the falsehood of the Australian idyl is largely affected by the conditions which visa applicants might face at home, conditions which might thicken the rose tinted glasses non-Australians often see this country through, and how visions of Australia exposed to outsiders are curated to show only the best bits. At least in my experience, life here is not as I expected, and I’m curious to explore whether the 417 Working Holiday Visa offers nothing but a false pretence, or at the very least an experience which is less care-free than that which is often inferred by proponents of the scheme.

As I recall, it was January when I had my haircut and heard Tom’s story. It was cold and wet from outside his shop’s window, and despite only being the early afternoon; it would be dark in a few hours. Tom cut my hair at a time when I didn’t enjoy London. In the final year of my degree, I was sick of university, finding it to be too introspective and my subject ineffectual. Nothing excited me. For me London was just a city where you’d need a mortgage to cover a round down the pub, or where you’d be foolish not to look over your shoulder every time you walked around at night. That conversation in the barbershop chair gave me all the reason I needed to leave.

The picture Tom painted in my mind’s eye couldn’t have been more averse to the dull and dingy London I’d become all too familiar with. His accounts of high wages, sunny beaches, and fun-loving outgoing people offered me the perfect escape, but upon reflection it was an escape born out of misrepresentation. Being so far away, Australia is described by many, like Tom, with language that invites idealism, especially when compared to life at home. After just briefly reading up about other people’s experiences online, and about how employers were supposedly queuing up to hire travellers, I booked my flights with high expectations. As I began to tell others of my plans, I was met with sincere encouragement. “You’ll love it out there!” they all said. It also felt as though everybody knew someone who went to Australia, and a lot of the time, I was told that they never came back. After months of anticipation, I was keen to see what it was all about.

Gutted was I, then, when as soon as I stepped out of Kingsford Smith there was no one there to offer me a competitively paid job, or hand me an ice cold schooner, or throw me a towel and direct me to the nearest beach. There was no Steve Irwin dupe there to slap me on the back and tell me “g’day,” only a taxi driver who charged a supposedly “good rate.”

Two hundred bucks down, I’d made it to the hostel and to the place I’d been anticipating for months on end, but as had so many others. One of the first things I noticed was just how many travellers had made the trip to Australia. In hostels, in bars, and at work, everybody that I spoke to was on the same working holiday visa that I was, and none of them were Australian. There is no yearly cap on how many people can come to Australia for the type of experience I was after. Indeed, it is encouraged by the government here. Working holiday makers contribute significantly to local economies, work jobs Australians would rather not do, and keep the tourism industry alive. These fellow globetrotters came not just from Europe but also from Canada, Hong Kong, Argentina, and anywhere eligible in between. Young people from all corners of the world are leaving their lives at home, forking out for a plane ticket, and moving here, but under what guise?  Could it be one similar to mine?

The reality is that life here isn’t experienced solely on a deck chair or on a surfboard. When I told friends from home that I was going to Australia for a year, I suspect most felt that I’d just decided to go on one big holiday. For those who can afford it, the 417 visa can be used as a rite of passage to such ends, but most can’t. Whilst the 417 subclass enables holidaymakers to work, there are no obligations or requirements that travellers have to work.

Despite saving up to move here, I haven’t been immune to financial difficulties. Perhaps that’s because I’ve spent my time so far here in Sydney, the most expensive city in Australia. For those who don’t want to leave the big city, life can be hard. It is often one spent moving from hostel to hostel, either working as a labourer on a construction site, behind a bar, or as a delivery driver. UK residents are now exempt from this, but if you wanted to continue life here and extend your visa, you’d also have to complete a quota of days working regionally, picking fruit or moving livestock. This agreement works, generally, for both the government and holidaymakers, since the construction, hospitality, and agricultural sectors are fed with a surplus of workers who, in exchange, are able to fund their travels with the wages they earn.

The problem I’ve noticed is, however, twofold. Firstly, because industries like agriculture rely heavily on visa holders to pick crops, when the availability of temporary migrants stops as it did during the coronavirus pandemic, the entire country enters a labour crisis. The same can be said about hospitality, and smaller independent businesses have the potential to succumb to irreversible damage if they are met without sufficient numbers of workers. Secondly, and conversely, there are issues of overcrowding and cost of living when too many backpackers come to Australia as they have done since the country has reopened post-COVID. Many are forced to live permanently in hostels as rental properties hike their prices up in response to a greater demand.

As a consequence, hostels become more expensive particularly during the peak of the summer season, to the extent where backpackers are getting fleeced, paying to sleep in a dormitory for the same price as a comfortably furnished apartment for those who can find one. Australia is thought of as a place where the work comes easy, or at least that’s what everyone told me. The reality is that jobs are highly sought after due to increasing numbers of backpackers, and any money that is earnt often goes straight into the pockets of the hostel managers. Of course, it is possible to still enjoy a sunrise jog here; an evening on the beach, or a night out, but the point is that with that comes, for most, the tough reality of surviving an ever more oversaturated holiday destination. This is what people at home don’t see, and hence where misrepresentation occurs. After all, why would anyone post a picture online of the sunset through their hostel dorm window if they could take one at the Sydney Opera House bar?

For people like me who have made the move, perhaps under a misapprehension, there are personal and interpersonal impacts few discuss. I moved here on my own, as many do, with the expectation that new friends would be easy to find. They haven’t. Because fewer Australians work in the same environments as backpackers, truly integrating into Australian culture is made less easy, and most end up becoming friends with people who share the same nationality. Because so many Brits have moved to Australia, it is easier to stay within the same social circles you might find yourself in at home. The same is true for other nationalities. The French stick with the French, the Irish with the Irish, and so on. I could easily wake up in my hostel, buy a coffee, go to work, finish in the afternoon, meet some mates and go out without speaking to a single Aussie. Whether or not that is a significant issue, I will leave the reader to decide. My point is that moving here can be isolating, and typically Australian people are thought of at home as outgoing and friendly, but there is no guarantee of that. For those who hear stories of hostels being big friendly melting pots, although possible, this is not always the case.

As I counted down the days to my flight from Heathrow, I found myself consuming more and more Australia related content online. Naïvely, I suppose I expected the country to look just like it did through my phone screen from the other side of the world. Information regarding the experience offered by the 417 visa is, I think, curated in the sense that few people discuss what life is really like here. The scheme in and of itself might not offer that false pretence, but the discourse that surrounds it, I think does. The prospect of an Australian working holiday is an exciting one, one that can be exactly what you make it to be, and it is an arrangement, which benefits both Australia and its corresponding countries. It is not without its problems though. Young people hear and see things about this country that make it out to be nothing short of utopian, yet as with most places it’s unfairly misrepresented overseas to be something a bit more than it is. With that said, although the grass might not be as green here as I once thought, I’d be foolish to leave without watering the Australian lawn for long enough, and I’m eager to see what the rest of this year has in store for me, regardless of under what pretence that might occur. 

© Henry Kauntze November 17th 2023

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