Backpackers, a win:win arrangementAugust 2012
For the past five years, Julie and Raoul Pridham have included backpackers in the mix of staff they employ for their 1000-cow autumn-calving dairy herd at Yanakie in South Gippsland, Victoria.
Employing backpackers has not only filled a need for the farm business, it has also enriched the family’s life, getting to know people from different cultures and backgrounds.
Mrs Pridham recently spoke of the family’s experience employing backpackers at an advisor forum held by The People in Dairy program.
She explained that the key to success is understanding the needs of both the dairy business and the backpackers. “In our situation we’ve been able to set up a win:win arrangement, but it did involve thinking outside the square,” Mrs Pridham said.
The Pridhams dairy in the Wilson’s Promontory district, an area popular with tourists for its national park, surf beaches and fishing.
Julie and Raoul both work full time on the farm, with help from three full time employees, a full time apprentice, four part timers and one or two backpackers, depending on workload. “Like many dairy farmers we could keep staff once we found them but we had trouble finding them. Employing backpackers takes some of the pressure off the system,” Mrs Pridham said.
Backpackers provide short term staff at times of the year when extra help is needed, particularly in the summer months. “When talking to prospective backpackers, we are always upfront about our situation: the farm is isolated, 20 minutes from a rural town. So backpackers need a driver’s licence and a car. “
The Pridhams recognise that they need to train backpackers. “We also need backpackers with brains and common sense, but that’s never been an issue,” she said. Backpackers who have worked for the Pridhams have come from varied backgrounds: a nurse, builders, police officers, a doctor, office workers, a physio, a genologist, bank workers, people from farms who want to gain more experience and people who’ve just left school and don’t know what they want to do.
“We’ve never had a bad one. They are casual so we would just move them on if we had to.”
In the Pridham’s experience, backpackers have been punctual, enthusiastic, intelligent, willing to learn, easy to teach and enjoy milking. “Sometimes we have to explain things twice as they don’t understand; and sometimes it’s easier to show than to explain,” she said.
When the Pridhams started thinking about employing backpackers, they realised that during the summer there were many driving past the farm each day. They were already holidaying in the district and some would be running out of money and time on their visa.
“The timing works for us. Most of them only want short term work, and that fits with our seasonal workload. We can also help out with their visa because it can be extended if they work in agriculture for at least three months. It gives them an incentive to stay and it’s worth our time in training them if they stay that long,” she said.
The Pridhams have found backpackers usually come in pairs, so they structure their work requirements around that. “We give them some time off together, and some apart. And putting them on split shifts gives them time off in the middle of the day to go to the beach, or sleep.”
The Pridhams provide accommodation for backpackers, separate from the family home. “We have two cabins, each with a bedroom, ensuite, lounge and kitchen. They pay rent, provide their own food and do their own cooking. We supply the basic furniture, appliances, water gas and electricity. They bring their own phone and internet access.”
Backpackers generally entertain themselves but the Pridhams tell them what’s happening in the area, such as major events and point them to websites with local tourist information.
While the backpackers’ main roles are associated with milking, the Pridhams’ experience is that they can help out with whatever needs extra people at the time.
“We might also get them to help out with feeding the calves, springer patrol, or animal health. And we aim to give them each the opportunity to pull a calf, so they can say they’ve done that.”
The challenges the Pridhams have faced in employing backpackers include paperwork, language and accommodation.
“Yes language is a barrier, but nothing we can’t get around. Before hiring backpackers, I talk to them over the phone and get an idea of their level of English. To get the job, they need at least some basic English – so they can understand us and we can understand them.”
Although demonstration is often the best training, the Pridhams farm procedures are written out in a variety of languages. “We ask all backpackers to rewrite our procedures in their language. It’s a handy backup, although we encourage English to be spoken and read.”
The other main challenge is paperwork. It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure people from overseas hold a valid working visa. The Pridhams ask backpackers to provide hard copies of their working visa, tax file number, superannuation, Australian bank account and drivers licence.
“If they don’t know what we are talking about in terms of tax and super they haven’t worked in Australia before. That means we’ll have to help them get a back account, explain about super etc. It’s much easier for us if they already have this paper work setup,” she said.
When the Pridhams started advertising for backpackers the response was so great that sorting through the applicants and answering their phone call inquiries was very time consuming. “Now we do as much as possible by email first, although we always speak to them on the phone towards the end of the process.”
The Pridhams send flyers to backpackers’ accommodation in capital cities, highlighting the tourist opportunities and providing links to local websites. They also advertise when needed on backpacker websites such as Harvest Trail and Gumtree.
“When our backpackers leave we give them flyers and business cards to pass on to their mates. They have a great network and they often know someone looking for work. “We don’t hide the isolation and we strongly recommend a car. They need to understand we are in a quiet area but there are a lot of positives about living near a beach,” she said.
Backpackers working for the Pridhams have come from a wide variety of nationalities: French, Dutch, Canadian, American, Irish, German, Japanese, English and even an Australian couple with two kids.
“It’s been a rewarding experience for our business and our family,” Mrs Pridham said. “When departing, most backpackers invite us to visit them if we ever travel to their home country. Maybe one day we will be lucky enough to take them up on their offer!”
Backpackers in Australia can be a source of short-term, seasonal labour for dairy farmers but Australian employers need to make sure backpackers they employ have the appropriate visa. It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure the paperwork is in order and to pay award wages.
Employers are responsible for checking every worker from overseas has a valid Australian visa with work rights. The working holiday maker program is a cultural exchange program which allows visa holders to supplement their holiday funds through short-term work.