Work and play in Queensland, Australia: Fruit Picking

Most people go on vacation to avoid work. But, as I discussed yesterday, many young people are going to Australia on Working Holiday visas and participating in Specified Work to extend their time in the country and put extra money in their pockets. One of the most popular forms of Specified Work is fruit picking. In Queensland, the fruit picking opportunities exist year-round because of the state’s warm, tropical climate. Perhaps the most popular fruit for Specified Work opportunities is bananas. The central and northern portions of Australia’s east coast are home to perfect growing conditions for bananas, as the climate creates a lush growing environment that stays mild and humid throughout the year. As such, bananas are big business in Queensland.

The hostels and farms in Australia often have strong relationships wherein the hostels work has employment brokers by assisting travelers in finding Specified Work. I was invited to visit one of Queensland’s many banana farms and got a tour of their operations. Staffed primarily by backpackers, the farm provides travelers with Specified Work for visa purposes. I was also fortunate enough to visit a hostel – operated by the farm’s owner – where many backpackers live while they are fruit picking.


Contempree Banana Farm

Bananas are delicious. Bananas are healthy. Bananas are hard work. Contempree Banana Farm in Innisfail, Queensland, Australia is a prime example of a working banana farm that employs backpackers to pick, sort and box fruit. The days are long, the climate is hot and humid and it’s good, old-fashioned manual labor. By no means am I trying to dissuade anyone from endeavoring to take on such a job, but even the farm’s owner made a point of telling us that he wants people to know what they are getting themselves into before they arrive in Innisfail. Farms can be dangerous places when properly staffed by people who are well-skilled and want to be there. So, the last thing any farmer wants is employees who are in over their heads.

That said, if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, fruit picking is significantly more desirable than other Specified Work, such as mining. Since farms like Contempree are staffed primarily by backpackers, they provide opportunities to meet fellow travelers while you work outdoors in the fresh air. Sitting on more than 100 acres of land, Contempree is a sprawling farm with thousands upon thousands of bananas that are ripe for the picking. Well, some needed a few more weeks but you get my drift.

Most fruit picking jobs in Queensland pay a respectable wage of around $16 to $20 AUD per hour (about $12.81 to $16 USD). Considering that the minimum wage in the United States is $6.55 (increasing to $7.25 on July 24, 2009) and no US state’s minimum wage exceeds $8.55, the standard Australian fruit picking wages are fairly generous and are viewed quite favorably by backpackers seeking to subsidize their trips.

Jobs vary on a banana farm but none involve air conditioning and reclining. One of the more physically taxing chores is humping the bananas. Are you done giggling now? Humping is the process of actually removing the banana cluster from the tree. Meanwhile, other employees work in the sorting area and boxing areas of the farm. While still tiring, jobs like these provide more cover from the elements than humping with significantly less machete work.

Fruit picking jobs involve long days and are typically located in rural areas where nightlife is not exactly plentiful. As I looked towards the horizon while at Contempree, all I saw were more banana farms and plenty of sugar cane. However, most backpackers understand that their three months of Specified Work are less about partying and more about making money. So, they work hard, save their earnings and sleep when they can. The hostels provide opportunities for socializing and are designed for extended stays. This makes them comfortable and homey, something you want after a long day of banana humping.

Codge Lodge Hostel

Also located in Innisfail and only a short drive from Contempree Banana Farm is Codge Lodge. A renovated 100-year-old house, Codge Lodge caters to backpackers who are working in this area of Queensland. Like many such facilities, it assists travelers in securing work. Unlike many hostels I have seen in Australia and other parts of the world, however, Codge Lodge was spacious and didn’t pack people into dorm rooms like prisoners. Since it caters to backpackers who plan to stay for several months while they are working, Codge Lodge chooses to provide an environment that can feel like a home.

The rooms are spacious and there is a pool as well as a large restaurant/bar complete with karaoke and, oddly, a go-go cage. So, if you’re not completely exhausted after a day humping bananas, you can blow off some steam with a cold XXXX or Bundaberg and cola while belting out the greatest hits of Men at Work.

When I visited Codge Lodge, I met young people from France, Italy, Korea and Japan who were all mingling on the porch enjoying some lunch, making calls home and enjoying an off-day from work. They all spoke highly of their Specified Work jobs while qualifying their praise with some comment along the lines of “I’m looking forward to getting my second visa and beginning my travels.” While fruit picking may not be the highlight of their trips, they all seemed to appreciate the opportunities that it afforded and the stories that it would provide upon their return home.

Know before you go

If you’re considering heading to Australia for some fruit picking, be sure to have your visa paperwork in order before you arrive to avoid any problems. Be prepared to get dirty and work hard, but also to have a fair amount of money burning a hole in your pocket when you’re ready to start traveling solely for leisure. For three months, you will be working, not traveling as if you are on a proper holiday.

Before you arrive, it pays to research hostels in areas where you will be traveling and contacting them to see if they will be able to assist you with employment opportunities once you arrive. It may turn out to be the toughest three months of your life, but if you can hump bananas, imagine what you can do once your real travels begin!

Mike Barish spent a week in Queensland, Australia on a trip sponsored by Backpacking Queensland to see how backpackers find employment and entertain themselves down under. He’ll be sharing what he learned about the logistics of working in Australia’s Sunshine State and the myriad activities that young travelers have at their disposal. Read other entries in his series HERE.

Work and play in Queensland, Australia: Visas

Australia is a tremendously easy country through which to backpack. It has superb infrastructure, seamless transportation systems that allow you to traverse its massive landscape and a surplus of affordable accommodations. It’s no wonder that so many European and American teens are delaying their entrance into college or the “real world” for a year and are working their way through extended Australian holidays. But before you defer your admission to Southwest State A&M Tech and head down under with visions of boomerangs and dingos dancing through your head, there are a few things that any young person needs to know about how to work and backpack through Australia legally. The last thing you want is to be deported. That’s just embarrassing.

American? I Have Good News & Bad News

So, you’re a US citizen (or from Chile, Thailand, Malaysia or Turkey) and you want to work and backpack through Australia. Are you between the ages of 18 and 30? Are you healthy and free of any criminal history? Can you speak English at a “functional level?” Then the Australian Work and Holiday visa (Subclass 462) is just the paperwork for you!

The good news is, you can visit Australia for twelve months, leave and enter the country any number of times during that period, pick up some temporary employment along the way and study for up to four months. According to the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship, this visa “is for you to holiday and travel in Australia. Any work should be temporary to supplement your funds. Periods of work should be broken up by periods of holiday and travel.” In other words, this visa is less about the work and more about making sure you don’t end up broke in Australia while traveling.

Holders of this visa may not work for the same employer for more than six months. Violating that rule may result in cancellation of your visa. There’s that embarrassment again. You can pick up any job that you’d like, however, so Australia is your oyster. But all you get is 12 months in the country, so make the most of it. No extensions or second visas are offered on the Subclass 462 Work and Holiday visa. And that, my friends, is the bad news.

The Luckier Countries

Australia offers another type of visa that is much more liberal and allows for significantly more time in the country. The Working Holiday visa (Subclass 417) is for people from Belgium, Canada, Republic of Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Republic of Ireland, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Taiwan and United Kingdom. Once again, you must be age 18 to 30, healthy and not be a criminal. If you fit the bill, you can work and play in Australia for up to twelve months. But from there, this visa begins to provide a few more options for residents of these lucky countries.

You see, if you perform three months of specified work while on your Working Holiday visa, you become eligible for a second Working Holiday visa. In other words, you can double your time down under and explore Australia for up to 24 months. No too shabby. But what qualifies as specified work? I’m glad you asked.

Specified Work

Specified Work is very…um, specific. Before I get my high school English teacher too upset, let me explain to you the most important thing you need to know about Specified Work: It’s not easy. If you were dreaming about bartending for three months and improving your bottle twirling skills in exchange for a second visa, well, you’ve watched Cocktail too many times. Essentially, Specified Work benefits the state and gives back to the country that’s letting you roam around freely for 12 to 24 months. So, you’re going to get your hands dirty in exchange for that second visa. But it will be rewarding, help you meet both other backpackers and local Australians and allow you to see parts of the country that are even more beautiful than those more often visited by tourists.

Specified Work includes:

  • plant and animal cultivation
  • fishing and pearling
  • tree farming and felling
  • mining
  • construction

The most popular form of Specified Work is plant and animal cultivation. While the phrase may make the work seem overly daunting, in essence this category encompasses fruit picking and general farm work. For example, in Queensland, banana farming is a $200 million AUD industry. Those bananas aren’t picking themselves, so farmers employ backpackers from all over the world to pick, sort and box the fruit year-round.

After three months doing Specified Work, travelers on a Subclass 417 visa are eligible for a second visa and 12 more months in Australia. Australia gets a steady stream of young, healthy and eager workers to work in jobs that provide for the state and travelers get money to subsidize their lengthy trip through Australia. In other words, it’s a win-win.

Once again, travelers can leave and enter the country any number of times and cannot work for any one employer for longer than six months. And studying is limited to four months. In other words, work to put some money in your pocket and then get back to exploring Australia’s vast array of activities and wonder. Many hostels will typically partner with local farmers and other employers whose endeavors qualify as Specified Work to help backpackers find positions. These hostels cater to extended stay backpackers, so the accommodations are comfortable, clean and conducive to making people feel at home.

Know Before You Go

The good folks at Backpacking Queensland arranged for me to tour both a banana farm and a farm that specializes in training young people and assisting them with finding cattle farm work. Later in this series, I’ll profile both of those farms and go into more detail on what it’s like to be employed doing Specified Work.

Picking up and moving to another country for an extended period of time requires a fair amount of preparation. Do your research, speak with people who have been there before and understand what you want to get out of the situation. Australia is a very welcoming place and has created visa options that benefit the country and its visitors. Being informed before you get there will help you avoid any potential pitfalls that could result in visa problems or, even worse, deportation. Man, that would be really embarrassing.

For more information, check out the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship website.

Mike Barish spent a week in Queensland, Australia on a trip sponsored by Backpacking Queensland to see how backpackers find employment and entertain themselves down under. He’ll be sharing what he learned about the logistics of working in Australia’s Sunshine State and the myriad activities that young travelers have at their disposal. Read other entries in his series HERE.