A major destination for backpackers from around the world, Australia has closed its international borders to non-residents until 2021. Some of those who are now in the country are managing to cope with this unprecedented situation, while others are stranded in uncertain and often precarious circumstances.
Foreign backpackers play an important role in the Australian economy, in particular in the tourism and agriculture sectors, which depend on them as a labor source. However, the Covid-19 crisis has put many of them in a difficult situation in which they are unable to find work or prolong their visas.
Unable to stay on in Australia
Alena from Slovakia moved to New Zealand in 2018 after finishing her PhD in linguistics and arrived in Australia in February 2020. The 29-year-old, who had applied for a renewable work-holiday visa, found a teaching job in Melbourne. However, after a month her employment was suspended by stage three of the covid-19 lockdown. Stuck in Melbourne, alone and isolated in her apartment, she managed to find another job, but quickly lost it because of the pandemic. Since then she has spent six months going from one disappointment to another. She has no possibility of doing the 88 days of work in a government-specified industry that she will need to complete if she is to prolong her visa, because restrictions are preventing her from moving to another state to find a job on a farm. She has no idea what to do next.
Waiting out the crisis
Stella, a 26-year-old from Germany who studied to be a special needs educator, has been in Australia since February 2020. Her plan was to make the country the starting point for a round-the-world trip lasting several years. The idea was to stay there to save some money by working on farms. When the health crisis began, she was working in a walnut grove where she stayed for two months before she found work at a station in the Australian outback in June. She will be able to stay there until September, or even longer now that she has obtained her third work-holiday visa.
Adapting to local restrictions
Toni, a 27-year-old who studied communications and then worked in finance in Argentina, came to Australia with his girlfriend to look for adventure in June 2019. The couple initially worked in Tasmania before finding jobs on a farm in Queensland. Having been laid off during the health crisis, they are now searching for work in a rural area of the territory that is far from the big cities.
Vicky, a 32-year-old German woman, arrived in Australia in September 2019. In what turned out to be a stroke of luck, she quickly moved to the west of the country, before Australia’s lockdown measures came into force. Although her plans to travel have been disrupted by the closure of interstate borders, she has been able to stay busy working as an au pair with one of the many families struggling to find someone to look after their children during the pandemic.
Parents are not the only people who are struggling to find help. Fruit farmers are also faced with a labor shortage at a time when many backpackers have left the country. And it is not certain that they will ever come back. Unions worried about increased unemployment in the Australian population have suggested suspending the country’s work-holiday visa system, which allows backpackers to stay for up to three years in the country, to make it easier for nationals to find jobs. In the wake of the closure of Australia’s borders, which has led to the loss of 80% of workers in some regions, they believe that now is also the time to address the issue of farmers underpaying seasonal workers and what the Pacific union has described as an unacceptable level of abuse in the current system.
However, the government, which insists that the native labor force is not adequate to the needs of farmers who depend on foreign visitors to harvest their produce, is still refusing to put an end to the current visa system.