The dark side of the Working Holiday Visa

Making meaning of her daughter’s death while backpacking around Australia, Rosie Ayliffe campaigns for reform.

Photograph of Rosie Ayliffe looking sternly at the camera. She is middle-aged, has cropped hair, and is wearing a white high-collard blouse. Rosie Ayliffe. Source: ABC

CW: Mentions sexual assault

August 23 will mark one year since the murder of Mia Ayliffe-Chung and Tom Jackson in the Queensland rural town of Home Hill. A fellow backpacker staying in the same hostel stabbed Tom and Mia — all three were on Working Holiday Visas. Mia’s Mum, Rosie Ayliffe recently travelled to Australia to campaign to make the ‘88 day work scheme’ safer for international backpackers in Australia. It was Mia’s death that captured the media’s attention across Australia and Britain but it is Rosie who has channeled the fallout from her daughter’s death into a force for change.

Ayliffe is curating first hand stories from various young travellers who have experienced some of the “darker sides” of the 88-day work scheme. She says she responds to growing media interest by “passing on stories about migrant workers who are being exploited and abused”.

“Since being on Australian Story this interest has mainly been from Australia, but I have also worked with UK press outlets such as the Daily Telegraph, the Times and the BBC,” she says.

The 417 Working Holiday Visa allows travelers aged between 18 and 31 from eligible nations to work and holiday in Australia. The National Farmers’ Federation states that a quarter of the Australian agricultural workforce is made up of backpackers. Rosie also notes that many farmers prefer 417 visa holders for harvest work, finding they’re more motivated in the field than the average Australian. If the government managed the program correctly, the process should be economically beneficial for Australia and safe for young travelers. It is not. Farms aren’t certified, leaving opportunity for exploitation, harassment and abuse that is rarely investigated. Young people are not registered in hostels or in farms so there is no government record of where they are staying and working. There are cases of hostel owners inviting travelers to rural towns with the promise of illusory work. Transport and accommodation are often dirty, overpriced and cramped. These conditions, and the lack of guaranteed farm work are part of the reason why young travelers may find themselves at risk. “Nobody is regulating this area of industry,” Ayliffe says.

Rosie suggests there are similarities in the treatment of international students at universities, and backpackers in rural areas of areas.

“I think it’s important for young Australians to find out what is going on across your campuses,” she says. “You have your own issues with abuse, and exploitative practices of foreign nationals. I believe young people come to Australian universities expecting to be enrolled on courses and end up working below minimum wage (much like international backpackers do). They can be dishwashing for up to a year when they’re enrolled on a management course and assumed they would be working in a relevant role to their course.”

Under the banner of the 417 Second Year Working Holiday Visa, farmers and hostel managers often correctly assume that travelers are too concerned to speak up against exploitation, harassment, or conditions for fear their employers will not sign off on their 88 days of work. An inquiry by the Fair Work Commission found that 59 per cent of workers applying for the visa agreed this was the case. The report also found 35 per cent of workers reported they did not know their workplace rights well.

The statistics are reminiscent of recent reports of exploited Australian university students and apprentices in hospitality work in areas such as Wollongong and the Illawarra. In a Sydney Morning Herald report, it was revealed that a ‘rotten business culture’ meant students were being paid far below minimum wage, with employers protecting themselves under the facade of ‘traineeships’ and lengthy ‘work trials.’

Through the Tom and Mia’s Legacy program, Ayliffe has received thorough accounts of sexual assault and harassment, including the story of UK 417 visa holder Cassie, who escaped sexual assault from a farmer who tried to rape her in the back of his ute. According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, sexual assaults are “viewed as fringe benefits of the 88 day work scheme by some employers of 417 visa holders…in Victoria and Queensland.” Ayliffe says farmers and hostel owners exhibit “a wide variety of attitudes, some are paternal in their attitude and want the best for the people in their care, but a growing minority see the situation in terms of the huge financial rewards they can reap through non-compliance and exploitation.”

More recently, the Australian Human Rights Commission released national data on the prevalence of sexual assault in university campuses highlighting what many already knew. “You also need to focus on the problem of sex offences in your universities. I would think a campaign in which you unite and say no to rape might help to solve the problem,” Ayliffe says. She believes that in the Australian government “there is a will to change. In rural Australia, Victoria and Queensland State Governments are both looking at licensing labour contractors, but this is only a small part of the problem.” As students continue to fight for change in their campuses, Rosie Ayliffe continues to lobby for reform against the dangerous and unregulated ‘dark sides’ of the 88-day workers scheme.