Welcome to Earning Abroad! In this series I’ll introduce you to some inspiring and ambitious friends I’ve met on the road — friends who have found viable work away from their home countries.
I met Freya Ashton when we we both living the sweet life of carefree expats in Koh Tao. Our friendship was on turbo-drive from the start, and today I can easily say she is one of the closest friends I’ve made in my many years of travel. We had innumerable adventures in Thailand, made our way through Cambodia, and even left Southeast Asia in tandem — her departure home prompted a party so grand it warranted a post of its own! I was thrilled to be able to visit her last summer in London, and thanks to the miracles of technology we still chat several times a week and have held each others’ hands through happy and hard times.
I could barely believe it when my super girly, pint-sized friend first told me that she had worked two seasons of agriculture work in Australia. Despite the harsh conditions and hands-on manual labor, due to Australia’s generous salaries and distribution of work permits this is an incredibly popular way for backpackers to earn abroad, so I couldn’t wait to pick her brain about picking vegetables. Over to Freya!
AB: Walk us through a typical day on the job.
FA: During my time fruit picking I held a number of different positions. I stayed at the Aussie Nomads Hostel in Bowen, North Queensland, which found jobs for guests with the local farms and provided transport to and from work. There was a pecking order to these positions — when you arrived you got the jobs with less hours and as you stayed longer and proved yourself to be a good worker you got better positions… a promotion as such!
My first job was on Todd’s Tomato Farm. Farms do not use backpackers to pick tomatoes as the work is too physical, so I was in the shed on the sorting table. This was a machine that brought all the tomatoes flying past on rotating tubes and we had to quickly pick out the rotten ones. I had been on the sorting table for approximately three minutes when I asked the rest of the group if they were feeling hot. No one else was, so I removed my hoodie… and then proceeded to pass out face first into the rotten tomatoes! That was my sorting career over as apparently I suffer from motion sickness.
I was then given an amazing job in the fields at Barbera Farm. The reason I loved this job is because the hours were set (6:30am to 4:30pm six days a week), it was outside, and it paid well. I was a general farmhand, so my duties during my three months working on this farm were hoeing the weeds on the tomatoes, weeding the capsicums (peppers), and planting new seeds.
That sounds deceptively easy – it wasn’t. I worked for 9.5 hours a day with only a half an hour break. This was my only time in the shade, and the rest of the time was in the boiling heat only stopping once an hour for water. We also had to wee in the fields, hiding behind a plant and hoping a tractor full of farmers wouldn’t drive past. The work was monotonous so we played games and sang songs and I got to know the girls I was working with better than you can imagine.
We also had to remove the tomato plants from the wires the vines had grown on, a process called “shaking”. This was by far the most disgusting job I had. There were wooden posts about a meter apart and wire between them with the vines hanging over. In pairs we had to walk along facing each other and grab the wire and shake and shake until the plants fell to the floor. Our hands were blistered and we were covered in dust but worst of all, the unpicked fruit, now rotten would fly off the vine and hit us — occasionally in the face! Black, rotten, fly infested fruit…. which would only attract more flies. Yum!
It may sound shocking but during my second year visa in Australia I actually chose to go back and do some more fruit picking. This time I worked at Brak Pak in the pumpkin fields. I started out as the only girl. As it’s a hard job it’s normally one for the boys, but because I was unable to work in the sheds I was given a chance. This was by far the most physical job I have ever worked.
Pumpkins were picked using a tractor. There would be one person driving, two people on the trailer sorting pumpkins and five people on the ground picking. Attached to the trailer was a long conveyor belt. As the tractor drove forwards we would have to run along behind it, pick the pumpkins and put them on the conveyor belt. This was hard — you had to pick all the pumpkins that were fully grown, put them on the conveyor belt, check for damaged/rotten ones and keep up with the tractor. Most of the time this did mean running and those pumpkins were huge.
We used to rotate roles to give ourselves a break and sometimes we would be sent off to do “cutting.” Because the stalks on pumpkins are so thick we weren’t able to break them by hand, so we had air cutters. These were basically like wire cutters but they were attached to a machine so that the air pressure did all the work for you. I was told that these cutters could cut straight through a finger so I was very nervous at first. I got the hang of it but I was always terrified of loosing a body part!
I know that most people definitely don’t do as many different roles as I did! However, I really enjoyed being able to experience different parts of the farm. I planted, weeded, picked and cleared away the farm and in the process was able to see the whole season.
How long did you have this position?
My first fruit picking season was almost five months. During my second year I returned for three months. It states on your visa that you must complete 88 days of farm work in order to receive a second year renewal. Some employees will sign you off for the days you are employed, some will sign you off for the days you work. So for example, if you work only 3 days in a week as the fruit is not ready to pick, this will only count as 3 days not 7.
How did you come to do farm work in Australia? What inspired you to find this job?
Originally, I left my job as a real estate agent to go travelling for 3-6 months in Thailand and the East Coast of Australia. A couple of weeks after I left the UK I already knew I had the travelling bug. So after a month in Thailand I flew to Australia to work at a farm. I met a guy in a hostel in Sydney who had heard about Aussie Nomads Hostel and was heading there to find work. I followed him a couple of weeks later.
I’m really glad that I decided to do my farm work at the start of my time in Australia. Firstly, because this meant it was done and out of the way, and also because I saved money to fund my travels. But mainly because I met so many amazing people, some of whom I spent the whole of my two years in Australia travelling the country with.
How did your family and friends react to your initial departure?
Luckily I am very close with my family and have amazing friends. I think because I initially planned on being away for only a few months they were more excited for me than anything. I had a lovely goodbye party and it was more of a “see you soon.” If they’d known I would actually be going away for just over three years I think the goodbyes may have been very different.
The longer I was away the more frequent the “When are you coming home?” emails became.
How much money did you make? Was it enough to live on?
I was paid 18.60AUD (about $17US) an hour, about 50 cents above Australian minimum wage. I was also taxed, but I was able to claim them back — after I returned from Australia I claimed all the taxes I had paid over two years. The employer also pays money into your Super Annuation fund, which is like a state pension. This can also be claimed back.
I paid $200 AUS (about $185US) a month to stay at the hostel. It was a clean and lovely hostel with six to a room, two kitchens, a tv room, a pool table area, a swimming pool, a bar, and a restaurant. Transportation to and from work was provided and there was a bus going into town to the shops and supermarket. They also cleaned the rooms and changed your bed!
Due to the fact I was in rural Queensland there was nothing to spend my money on. All I bought were food and drinks and the food we cooked was basic and cheap. As everyone in the hostel worked on different farms and all worked different days there was a party most nights in the hostel. We often organised fancy dress parties and day trips to the beach for BBQ’s but my expenses were very minimal.
You could take it further. I met some people in camper vans who would drive around and work on the farms and live on the land in tents to save money on housing. My savings from my time on the farms paid for my six weeks of travel in New Zealand as well as weeks in Southeast Asia – basically until I started a new job in Thailand!
What kind of legal hoops do you have to jump through?
I entered Australia with a one year Working Holiday Visa. I applied for this online and paid around $350AUS in fees (amounts change frequently, but you can find them here.) I had to confirm I wasn’t pregnant, and had no dependents nor a criminal record. You are only eligible for this visa up until your 31st birthday.
The date you arrive is the date your visa starts from. You are allowed to leave the country, however this is still counted within the time of your visa. If during this first year you complete 88 days of agriculture work in the certain areas, you can apply for a second visa. There are two ways to apply. Either you can apply for your second visa while you are still in the country, and you will be asked for details of the farm work you did, dates worked, etc. You are then NOT ALLOWED to leave the country until you have had been granted your second year visa. It will start from the day your first year visa expires. The other way is to leave the country and then apply for a second year, though in that case you cannot re-enter until it’s been approved.
I heard a rumor that 1 in 10 visa applications are investigated. In this case immigration officials ask for pay slips and other information to validate that you did in fact do the work that you have claimed to have done – visa fraud is unfortunately not uncommon.
The main skill you need for picking fruit in Australia is a desire to get it done. There’s nothing glamorous about early mornings, faces full of rotten fruit, sweat and achy muscles. There would be lots of days when we would all question why we were there, but for an extra 365 days in that country and a replenished bank account to travel it with, it was definitely worth it.
What were the best and worst things about farm work in Australia?
When I emailed everyone at home to tell them of my plans pick fruit the responses were of shock, horror and doubt… Would I be able to handle it? Yet to my surprise there were many things I loved about fruit picking.
I learnt about different cultures from my coworkers. Working holiday visas are available to a wide range of countries around the world. I made many European friends but also a lot of Taiwanese and a couple of Koreans as well. While fruit picking all the girls from Asia wore long trousers, sleeves, hats and head scarfs and did everything to avoid getting a suntan, where as the rest of us were doing all we could to avoid the tan lines by wearing as little clothes as possible. We had a lot of great cooking lessons in the kitchen in the hostels.
I saw a side to the country I wouldn’t have normally seen. The views from the fields were truly beautiful — I saw stunning sunsets, visited perfect beaches and witnessed animals in a natural environment. While in the fields I often saw kangaroos hopping past, and one day we had a couple of huge emus walking about with us.
On the downside, there were the snakes and spiders. I was told that snakes loved to live under the plastic where the fruit was planted and to be very careful. “If you get bitten by a brown snake you have 10 minutes to get to a hospital before you die,” they laughed. “And we’re 30 minutes from the nearest hospital!” One of the boys in the hostel got bitten by a snake, and being a typical boy ignored it until a day later when his leg was swollen to double size. He had to be taken to the hospital in the middle of the night.
The good outweighed the bad. One of the main bonuses for this pasty Londoner was losing loads of weight and getting the best tan I’ve ever had!
What would your advice be to someone seeking to do the same?
The best piece of advice I have is to talk to others. Everyone backpacking generally does the same thing, takes the same route. So speak to people and find out where they did their fruit picking and their opinions.
On the Australian government website you can search for information on what fruits are picked where and information on what months they are in season. I would suggest arriving in an area at the start of a season or before to ensure you get a position. Also, find out as much information as you can before you go. I met people who went across the country for a job, spent days and plenty of money travelling, only to find it was nothing like they had been told. Often on the phone there would be the promise of a job and then a long waiting list upon arrival.
My last advice is if you are doing farm work in order to get a second year on your visa, ensure you do it early enough. Finding a job can take time, it can use up your funds, and as I said you may have to work a lot longer than 88 days in total.
What do you know about Australia that you wouldn’t have learned as a tourist? How did working in Australia change your experience there?
I loved my time in Australia. Other than the time I spent fruit picking in Queensland the majority of my time was spent in Melbourne. Travelling and living in Australia really isn’t difficult — everyone speaks English, they have good transport systems, etc. Effectively for me it was like living at home — city life but warmer weather and friendlier people than London!
In Queensland I have experiences that were more out of my ordinary. One day, my boss on one of the farms took me and two other girls out on his boat to the Whitsundays, one of the most beautiful places in Australia. We visited remote islands, he taught us how to fish, and then we BBQ’d the fish for dinner.
Have you had other experience working abroad? Are there differences between working in your home country and in those places?
While I was in Melbourne I worked in a cafe in the city. This was one of my favourite jobs ever. I worked with a great team, made some super friends and the customers were all regulars and made my working day a joy. I do feel that people in Australia are friendlier, happier and have more time for each other that we tend to in England.
While in Thailand I worked in two bars [Editor’s Note: One of them being Brian’s bar!] and briefly worked as an office administrator for a dive school. This enabled me to get my diving qualifications, yet another thing I wouldn’t have achieved if I hadn’t worked abroad!
Was it difficult to transition home and re-enter the mainstream work force?
My life during my three years away was nothing like it was at home. I went from being an real estate agent for five years and owning my own property in London to fruit picking and living in a hostel. Then I went from to making coffee and living in a shared studio flat with five others in the city to driving around the coast in a car with four other people and sleeping in a tent. Finally, in Thailand I spent my time working in bars and living in a hut. I could never have imagined all my differing abodes before I left but I loved all of them equally.
So coming home was very hard, and I struggled for some time to get back into full time work. While I was away I decided to return to school and have just completed my studies in Beauty Therapy. One of my main motivations was that to get permanent residency in countries abroad, such as Australia, you often require a skill. I wanted a qualification that might be able to aid me in living abroad again. It turns out now I’m back I actually really like being home, but you never know what might happen in the future.
…I’ll let you know what it’s like to have a London career again soon, as I’m starting a job with a world wide skin care brand in one of London’s most famous department stores this month!
What are you doing now? What are your plans for the future?
One of the main reasons I chose to come home when I did was to meet my nephew. He was almost two when I returned and met him for the first time. I love him so much and spend so much of my time with him now that I’m not sure I could leave him again!
Yet I haven’t lost my desire to explore more of the world. I already have my next holiday booked and have my wish list of counties just waiting to be ticked off.
Many thanks to Freya for sharing her story with us! Let’s leave her some serious kudos in the comments! Who would you like me to interview next?