There are renewed calls for the federal government to reverse a visa change that’s dramatically reduced the number of volunteers working on small farms and biodiversity programs over the past two years.
Up until 2015, it was common for backpackers to volunteer in rural areas in exchange for food and board. But then, the Immigration department decided unpaid work would no longer count towards working holiday visa extension applications, creating a big disincentive for travelers to volunteer.
Julie Armstrong, 57, who runs Corynnia Station, a outback guesthouse midway between Sydney and Adelaide, says it’s reduced the number of volunteers on her farm by 95 per cents
“It’s further isolating remote communities. We had a steady flow of people from all of the world. Now, we get next to no interest,” she said.
Ms Armstrong would recruit volunteers to help with farming and her accommodation services through the Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program. Now she services her guesthouse by herself, which was at capacity with 22 visitors over Easter.
“Farming and tourism is erratic and seasonal, so it’s difficult to hire people and pay them a regular wage. But the WWOOFers who came here loved it, they never had to put their hand in their pocket.”
The visa change has also hit biodiversity programs. Lee Scott Virtue, President of Kimberley Toad Busters, a group that recruits skilled volunteers to keep toad populations under control in WA, says she hasn’t had a single volunteer offer in 2017.
“It used to be a win-win for everyone, for us, for the backpackers, and also for government who would gain important data. The change was just crazy,” she said.
The stated rationale for the reform to was stop exploitation of workers.
“You wouldn’t be applying for a second visa if you were being exploited. It doesn’t make sense,” Ms Virtue said.
Both Ms Armstrong and Ms Virtue also say it’s near impossible to get locals to do the work required.
For Ms Armstrong, it’s been more than an economic hit.
“It was about opening your home and your hearts to another culture. You couldn’t pay a million bucks for that experience.”