Australian working holiday visas are valid for one year, but if you do three months of specified work (the kind of work that Australians don’t want to do – harvesting crops, mining, construction) then you can apply for a second year. Fruit picking is by far the most popular option for young people travelling in Oz. In the early days of planning my trip, I was certain that this was the route I was going to take. Then I read the harvest work information provided on the Australian Department of Immigration website. Good grief! Who wants to do back-breaking work in forty degree heat, seven days a week for three months? No, thank you. I decided that one year of fun would be better than three months of horrendous labour followed by 21 months of fun.
Then I got to Melbourne and met some people whose one year stints in Australia were almost over. They were heartbroken. I realised that I owed it to myself to keep the option of a second year open. In those first few weeks in the hostel I chatted to lots of people who had done harvest work and could offer me advice. Let me tell you, no one has a good story about it. You get rashes from peach hair, burns from caustic mango sap, back aches from crouching to pick strawberries…the list goes on and on. I’m still waiting to discover what the holy grail of fruit picking is: the fruit that just drops straight from the tree into your upturned hat.
So far I haven’t met a single person who has been given a second working holiday visa. I’m not sure the whole thing isn’t just a big myth. Moira, who was in my dorm at the youth hostel, came close but her visa was denied because she was a few days short of the three months. She told me about the time she spent working in a garlic factory (processing plant and animal products also counts as specified work). The smell was unbearable (a few cloves of garlic in your cooking is one thing, but a billion freshly uprooted bulbs is another). There was no getting the stink out of her clothes; she had to throw them out afterwards. The workers had to cut the shoots and the roots off each bulb and they had to work quickly because they were only paid a fraction of a cent for each bulb. Moira used to get motion sickness from watching the garlic-loaded conveyor belt slide past. The absolute worst thing, she said, was the putrid stench released when you accidentally pushed your thumb through a rotted clove.
“Orange picking, that’s what you want to do,” Moira said confidently. “You can fill a basket of oranges quickly.” Because one of the problems with any kind of harvest work is that you get paid by the quantity that you pick. I heard that the going rate for cherry picking was $1 per kilo. $1 per kilo?! Bearing in mind that minimum wage here is around $15 an hour, there’s no way I could pick enough cherries to make even a modest living.
I told Moira that I had been thinking about working on a vineyard (grapes are light and grow about standing height so no crouching or balancing on ladders). She quickly put me off that idea. Once when she was picking grapes she nearly grabbed a huntsman spider sitting on a bunch. Another time, she looked into her bucket and saw a mummy redback with her six babies sitting on top of the grapes.
Suddenly the garlic factory was starting to sound pretty good. I made a note of the phone number of the guy who runs it, just in case.