Are back-packers a sure-fire way to help fire-ravaged areas?

On 13 February, NSW Rural Fire Service deputy commissioner Rob Rogers declared Australia’s catastrophic bushfires as contained. But the celebration is bittersweet. The fires – which burnt from September 2019 – leave behind mass devastation. Over 46 billion acres have been charred, one billion animals killed, and 3,000 homes destroyed.

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Attention now turns to who will salvage, clean-up, remove debris, repair and rebuild to get businesses and homeowners back on their feet? In a bid to get “boots on the ground,” the government is turning to an unlikely source: backpackers. Synonymous for flocking to Australia’s iconic Bondi Beach during the summer months, an overhaul of the working holidaymaker program will allow visa holders to take on unpaid voluntary work in fire-ravaged areas to count towards the required days for second- and third-year visas

Here’s the details:

  • Before, travellers on the 417 visa had to complete 88 days of labour (usually in agriculture or specialist industries) to be eligible for a second or third-year visa. 
  • Now, paid and volunteer disaster recovery work in areas impacted by bushfires will also be counted as visa-eligible work.
  • Employers are able to hire the same backpacker for one year, up from six months
  • Construction work, including land clearing, rebuilding fences and homes, and demolition, will now fall under the government’s definition of qualified trades

With more than 209,000 working holiday visas lodged in 2018-19, it’s hoped the changes will help fast-track reconstruction and boost tourism in 45 declared disaster zones across seven states and territories. But will it work?

post on LinkedIn attracted insight from small business owners in bushfire-affected communities around Australia. Many heralded the program overhaul. “Terrific,” wrote Andrew Cleary. “Any change to a system that provides greater opportunity to be gainfully employed is a positive,” says business advisor Bevan Roberts, pointing to the merits of the “flexibility” and “enthusiasm” of backpackers turning their hand to bushfire reconstruction. ACT-based Gilles Patrice flagged that attracting working holidaymakers would help generate business across various sectors. In 2015, backpackers accounted for 13% of the total tourism spend in Australia, $3.2 billion, according to Tourism Research Australia (TRA).

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Others voiced concerns over the exploitation of temporary labour and the need for coordination efforts to ensure a positive experience for both rural Australia and workers: “The last thing the recovering communities need, is too many people turning up at one town while another receives no visitors and gets no assistance,” wrote Adelaide-based solicitor Christopher Johnston.

But does the rewriting of visa rules limit employment opportunities for those in the area who may already be struggling with lack of work? White Box Enterprises co-founder and CEO Luke Terry writes: “Backpackers are one part of the solution but every day across Australia I see thousands of vulnerable young Australians who would love the chance of that first job… is backpackers the best we can do as a country?”

This was first posted on LinkedIn

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