February to March, 2018
Like many international transits over my year of travelling, my journey from Singapore to Melbourne didn’t run entirely smoothly. My flights from both Singapore to Bali, and Bali to Melbourne were delayed, and my debit card was cancelled yet again, when I attempted an ATM withdrawal during the layover. By the time I reached Melbourne airport, I was low on cash, and too late for most public transport links.
When I was passing through customs, my passport was never stamped. There was no discussion about my visa, or entry conditions to Australia. I had my passport scanned, and passed through security as if returning home to my own country. I found this slightly unsettling: I would have preferred a clear stamp in my passport, confirming I’d entered on a working holiday visa, and marking the date at which I had to leave the country.
I caught a shuttle bus from the airport to the city centre, and a taxi from the centre to the hostel I’d booked in Brunswick, a suburb twenty minutes to the north. It felt alien, after my year of backpacking, to be able to trust a taxi driver again. For me to approach his car, rather than for him to come running and shouting as soon as I emerged from the bus depot with my backpack; for us to follow the metre, rather than have him switch it off, and demand an extortionate price at the destination; for him to hand back the change from my two $20 notes, rather than assume he was being given a hefty tip: it all came as a welcome relief.
For the next six weeks, I lived at Landing Pads, Brunswick. Though a hostel in name, the place was more like a large share-house, run for and by backpackers on working holidays. Situated on a quiet, residential road, just off one of Melbourne’s most rapidly gentrifying main-streets, the house held around forty beds, spread across seven rooms, ranging in capacity from two to twelve.
With a minimum booking of a week, and guests often staying at least a month, Landing Pads was entirely set up for international travellers either working, or looking for work. By 11pm each night, all music was turned off, and anyone looking to drink was asked to move on to one of Brunswick’s many bars, out of respect for those getting up early to work the following morning. Guests constantly came and went, some working early morning shifts in construction, some working regular days in offices, and others working afternoon, evening, or night shifts in restaurants or bars. This staggering of daily schedules allowed the four toilets, and the eight gas hobs in the kitchen, and the three sofas in the lounge, to serve everyone.
The rules were strict in Landing Pads. Between the hours of 11pm and 7am, the place went quiet. Outside visitors had to leave, and loud noises had to be shut off. Every room in the house, bar the bedrooms and bathrooms, was rigged with a CCTV camera, so that management could keep track of who wasn’t cleaning their dishes after cooking, or sleeping on the couches, or generally being a nuisance. Anyone caught breaking one of these minor rules would receive a ‘breach’: three breaches resulted in eviction. Breaking a major rule, such as sneaking a visitor in at night, or smoking indoors, would lead to immediate removal. The rules were strict, but for good reason: it was the enforcement of these high standards that allowed the hostel to be such a clean, welcoming, and comfortable place.
Cleaning and admin in the hostel was taken care of by four or five on-site staff; backpackers who worked shifts around their regular jobs, in exchange for reduced rent. The daily social events run by Landing Pads were overseen by the ‘House Captain’, whose role involved less scrubbing of toilets, and more ensuring that each and every new guest was absorbed into the hostel community. During my stay at the hostel, a Polish-American traveller named Kamil served as Captain, organising the constant bar trips, and movie nights, and museum tours.
Overseeing the backpacking staff, there were two local managers. There was Jesse, the Site Manager, who took a more hands-on approach in directing his team, and Matt, the owner and General Manager of the organisation, whose role kept him at a bit more of a distance. As well as the Landing Pads hostel in Brunswick, Matt ran a Landing Pads in Richmond, another Melbourne suburb, as well as a few smaller share houses throughout the city. Jesse would spend a day or two per week in each hostel, checking everything was running smoothly, receiving updates from the captains, and taking care of any admin tasks that didn’t fall to the backpackers. Matt would drop by less frequently, often for DIY purposes, or to oversee tradesmen working bigger projects.
With early February being the height of summer in Australia, we all spent a lot of time in the yard out back, sitting on wooden benches around a large, rectangular garden table, with a small parasol doing its best to protect us from the sun. We’d eat all our meals in the yard, and, on a Friday and Saturday, would sit out in the late afternoon heat, drinking cheap beer from the local supermarkets, and playing card games and guitars.
Throughout my travels, I’d heard Australians talking about box wine, or ‘goon’ as it’s known locally, and how every Aussie has a bad story from their school days, of a night going overboard on the stuff. It was well established amongst the residents of Landing Pads that buying goon was the most effective way to maximise unit alcohol per dollar. During the summer festival season, it was as common to see guests pouring the bargain wine from cardboard boxes into plastic cups, as it was to see them using lighters to crack open bottles of beer.
The summer sun in Australia was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I’d survived higher temperatures in Iran and Pakistan, without ever getting badly burned. Thanks to the depleted ozone layer of Australia’s mid-latitudes, things were different here, however. The sun was brutal. Even on cooler days, when the temperature was ‘only’ in the high-twenties, and even in the late afternoon, when the sun had dipped close to the horizon, after just a few minutes outside in a t-shirt, I could feel my skin burning. It wasn’t uncommon to find guests hiding in the lounge shortly after midday, sheltering from the worst of the heat.
During high summer, Melbourne was continually busting with events, festivals, and outdoor parties. Every weekend there seemed to be a different occasion to head into the city centre. On my first Sunday at the hostel, I joined the gang heading to the St Kilda Festival, to explore the music stages, amusement rides, and food stalls set up in Melbourne’s most popular seaside suburb. Over the following weekends there came Vietnamese food fairs, and open-air wakeboarding competitions, and jazz festivals: it quickly became apparent why Melbourne had a reputation as Australia’s most exciting, most trendy, most livable city.
With the hostel being mainly work-orientated, it was easy to pick up tips and leads in my job search. Guests were constantly going on tours around Brunswick and the city centre, handing resumes into bars and cafes, or giving each other feedback on which recruiters and labour hire agencies offered the best hours and pay rates. On my very first day in the hostel, the morning after arriving late at night, Jesse ran a ‘Job-seeking tutorial’, where he explained the basics of applying for, and legally working, a job in Australia. Eager to start earning an income as soon as possible, I immediately went out to a nearby shopping centre, and got myself set up with a phone plan, a bank account, and a Tax File Number; all necessary for employment.
I found myself in a very different mindset to most others in the hostel. The majority had arrived to Australia directly from Europe or North America, with perhaps a short stop in South East Asia en route. They were motivated to explore the city, the state, and the country. They wanted to spend each evening and weekend touring Melbourne’s endless events and attractions. For most, enjoying summer in Melbourne was the highest priority, with finding enough work to keep their accounts balanced being equal or secondary.
I, on the other hand, after my thirteen months of constant movement, and sightseeing, and discovery, just wanted stability. All my energy was focussed on landing a decent job, with long hours. My plan was to find employment, then find accommodation near said employment, then buy a bike to take me between said accommodation and said employment, and then settle into a nice, boring routine for a few months, where I could save money, and rest after my busy year.
I didn’t join in many of the hostel trips and activities in my first month at Landing Pads. I didn’t make too much of an effort to get to know my fellow guests. Instead, I sat on the couches in the lounge, every day for hours and hours on end, and I applied to jobs. Over the weeks, I registered with fifteen different job sites. I contacted twelve different recruitment agencies, and I sent out over two hundred applications, slightly tailoring my cover letter each time.
The kind of jobs and recruiters I was applying to changed over time, as my hopes and expectations for employment became more grounded. Arriving into Australia, I already knew that finding an engineering job, like the one I’d been working back in Ireland, would be ambitious. It’s universally understood that a fresh immigrant to a country will struggle to find the kind of job they were qualified for at home, initially at least. The fact that my working holiday visa restricted the amount of time I could work for any one company to six months, didn’t make things easier.
I started out applying for administrative and secretarial jobs, imagining myself sitting in some office in Melbourne’s central business district, drawing up Excel charts and taking notes at corporate meetings. I also tried for technician and trade jobs where possible, thinking I could use my engineering experience to quickly learn to operate CNC machines in factories, or keep up in a workshop. As time went on, and I heard nothing back, I began looking at more modest positions: data entry, office assistant, factory line assembler, customer service consultant. Finally, having realised that my engineering degree was outweighed by my visa restrictions and lack of Australian references, I began searching for more casual, physical work.
The majority of jobs I ended up applying for were titled ‘Factory Worker’, ‘Warehouse Assistant’, ‘Drill Operator’, or something similar. Even then, for every thirty applications I sent out, I’d be lucky to have my phone ring once.
Even as the kind of work I was applying for became more realistic, I maintained some filters. I didn’t apply for anything with less than thirty-five expected hours per week, knowing I’d quickly end up disappointed with the sitting around. I only looked for positions within an hour commute to the city centre, and I didn’t go near hospitality or construction labouring positions.
This set me aside from most of the other backpackers in my hostel. Bar, restaurant, and cafe jobs were by far the most popular type of work those around me were looking for, with many of the guys in the hostel working construction as well. There was very good money in labouring, I was repeatedly told, but I stayed away, out of a likely-misguided notion that I would find something ‘better’ than working as a labourer.
A few of the backpackers had found an easier way to make money. Rather than find a job, they would volunteer as participants in medical trials. A research clinic in the city was constantly on the lookout for healthy individuals to test newly developed drugs on, I was told. A young Englishman named Sean, who moved into the twelve bed dorm around the same time as me, left soon after to spend two weeks in the clinic, being dosed with drugs and closely monitored. He returned to the hostel with $4,000, an amount which a backpacker usually had to spend months earning. He immediately left again, to go on a spare-no-expense tour of Australia’s east coast, all without having done a single day of work.
I signed up to the clinic’s mailing list out of interest, despite having no interest in doing a study. What I wanted was a steady job and a routine, not a long stint in hospital, after which I’d be back to square one. For the rest of my stay in Melbourne, I went on to receive texts and emails, offering me multiple thousands of dollars for my time.
Gradually, as I refined my resume, cover letter, and, most importantly, the type of job I was applying for, the interview offers began coming through. It was after just over a week of job searching, that I was called in for my first.
In the haste of applying for so many jobs, I sometimes found myself submitting my documents without fully understanding what the job entailed. If the description was vague, I’d just pick out the keywords, rearrange my cover letter to fit, and hit ‘send’. I’d then record the details in my job-hunting spreadsheet, and move on to the next application.
It was one of these vaguely phrased job postings that landed me my first interview. I got a call from a Scottish-sounding woman, who invited me to an office in the city centre to discuss my application to become an ‘Appointment Setter’ at Sunline Energy. After I’d agreed to the interview, I did some digging to find the job posting, and realised the position was very likely door-to-door sales. It followed the usual template that companies seemed to use to attract backpackers, using phrases like ‘expanding our client base in the solar revolution’, and focussing more on the great barbeques and nights out that the company hosted, rather than the actual work.
I turned up to the interview anyway, since I was hardly doing anything else that day. Within a few minutes of sitting down to chat with Emma, a Scottish backpacker on the second year of her working holiday visa, she’d explained the job thoroughly enough for me to let her know it wasn’t quite something I’d be interested in. Being driven out of Melbourne from Monday to Friday, put up in a regional town, sent out knocking on doors for five days, trying to get people interested in buying solar panels: the work was essentially the opposite of everything I was looking for.
As well as accidentally applying to jobs I no intention of working, there were other risks involved in sending out my resume and contact details so willingly. Two seperate scam organisations, who’s posts I’d likely applied to, contacted me during my first few weeks in Melbourne.
I answered my phone one day to a South-Asian-sounding woman, who told me that she was calling on behalf of a recruiting agency, specialising in getting migrants with technical or engineering qualifications into the workforce. As we discussed, at length, my previous work experience, the kinds of employment I’d be interested in, and my plans for the future, a few alarm bells started to go off in my head.
Firstly, despite asking me question after question, the woman didn’t sound at all interested in my replies, sometimes cutting me off as I spoke to ask the next, as if just trying to get through a checklist. Secondly, what she was offering sounded far too good to be true. I’d been applying for factory and workshop positions; she was telling me about large engineering companies, who’d be willing to sponsor my Permanent Resident visa. Thirdly, after half an hour of talking, she revealed that to get signed on to her agency, I’d need to become qualified in a certain type of software, the training course for which would cost me a few hundred dollars. I remained polite on the phone, but immediately deleted the email she sent later, which was asking for my bank account details.
The second scammer who’d gotten my details used a much more aggressive tactic. The man, who again had a South-Asian accent, called using a private number, and got straight to the point.
“Hello?” I said, answering my phone.
“Good day, Mr Alexander Sloane! How are you today?”
“Eh . . . I’m good. Who’s this?”
“I am calling from the Australian Immigration Department. I am afraid I have some bad news about your Working Holiday Visa. It seems that you have been caught breaching the terms of your visa. Your visa will now be cancelled, unless you pay a fine of eight hundred dollars to . . .”
“Fuck off. Don’t call me again.”
I hung up, and had to download an app on my phone to automatically block calls from private numbers, to stop the man bothering me over the next two weeks.
A few days after meeting Emma from Sunline Energy, came my second interview, for a company called Weploy, a short-term, short-notice recruitment agency, where clients could send out automated requests for office and events assistants, which workers could accept over their phones. The company seemed to me to essentially be an ‘Uber for officework’.
After a phone interview, and an online assessment testing my typing speed and accuracy, I was invited into Weploy’s bohemian, open-plan office for a face-to-face interview, which consisted half of friendly chatting about life and ambitions, and half of ‘standard’ interview questions. Drawing partly on my experiences working in Ireland and Switzerland, and partly on my abilities to make up stories on the spur of the moment, I recounted examples of times I got into disagreements with coworkers, or stepped up to show initiative, or had to find an innovative solution to a problem.
I was accepted onto the Weploy network, downloaded the app onto my phone, and waited for the job offers to start rolling in. Here, immediately, I discovered Weploy’s main issue from the employee’s perspective. There seemed to be a huge imbalance between the number of clients posting jobs, and the number of workers accepting jobs. Every few days, my phone would make a single beep, notifying me that another job had gone live. Always, without fail, in the time it would take me to pull my phone out of my pocket, and draw my lock pattern, the job would be taken by someone else.
Only once was I the fastest, out of however many Weploy workers were out there. I happened to be using my phone already, with my thumb hovering over the top of the screen, where the notification popped up. I opened it, and pressed the ‘Accept Job’ button, without even reading the description, knowing that taking a second-long pause would likely lose me the gig. That one shift, involving five hours of sorting marketing material for mailing, at a medical communications company, was all that came from my being a Weploy worker.
One of the most common conversation topics in the hostel was farmwork. Every backpacker on a working holiday visa started out with one year in Australia. To earn a second year, we had to spend 88 days working in a rural postcode. Most of those in the hostel had either come from spending the three months working on a farm, or were scouting out farms looking for labour.
An entire industry seemed to exist, of middle-men connecting backpackers looking for 88 days worth of rural payslips, to farms across the country looking for seasonal workers. Backpackers would come and go from strawberry farms, banana plantations, cattle ranches, and solar panel installations. The general strategy seemed to be to book into a rural hostel, surrounded by farmland, which existed solely to house backpackers hoping for a second year. Here, the hostel manager would use contacts to find work appropriate for the size, strength, and skills of their guest.
From what I heard, the working conditions and pay rates varied wildly from farm to farm. Those who found themselves picking fruit on a pay-per-weight basis, often could barely afford rent in their hostel. Those lucky enough to get accepted to solar panel installations would slave away for 60 hours per week, in exchange for unbelievably high wages. A lucky few managed to find work pulling pints in rural pubs, where they could serve their 88 days without ever getting their hands dirty.
I started out in Australia without any intention of doing farmwork. I wanted to work for one year, in Melbourne, and move on. As the weeks rolled on, however, without me hearing back from any of the companies I was applying to, the prospect of guaranteed work out in the countryside began sounding slightly more appealing.
Between my Weploy interview, and my sole Weploy shift, I was called in for another pair of interviews, for a job I considered almost ideal. The position involved a five month contract, with a guaranteed thirty-eight hours per week, at Melbourne’s branch of Thermo Fisher Scientific, an international laboratory equipment supplier. The role on offer was to clean and calibrate the rental equipment, before and after it was sent out to academic and corporate research clients. Apart from the 7:30am start times, and the fact that the branch was located far out into the middle-class-family stretch of Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, the job sounded perfect for me: a long-term (by backpacker standards), secure position, in a field I was interested in.
My first interview for the job, with a friendly woman from the recruiting agency, went very well. As we parted ways, she told me that I was exactly the kind of candidate her client was looking for, and that she’d arrange ‘a chat’ between the Thermo Fisher manager and myself on the upcoming Monday. As I rode the train ride back to Brunswick, I reckoned that the job was all but mine.
This, I thought later, may have been my downfall. I’d been left with the impression that my meeting with Matt, the Rental Manager at Thermo Fisher, was essentially a formality. Though I was punctual, and well presented, and polite, and friendly, and engaged, I didn’t quite take every opportunity to sell myself, until our meeting was two-thirds through, and Matt let me know that he had another few candidates lined up in this second-round of interviews. My mood on the train ride home was less upbeat than before. I was disappointed, though not entirely blindsided, when the recruiter phoned a few days later to let me know that the job had gone to somebody else.
Just under a month into my stay in Melbourne, I took my first proper break from job hunting, to go sightseeing. The Great Ocean Road, a 243km coastal highway to the west of the city, built by the soldiers returning from the First World War, in memory of their comrades who didn’t,was one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state of Victoria. The backpackers in my hostel regularly organised themselves into groups, rented cars, and spent weekends touring the length of the road, sleeping in campsites or hostels along the way.
My friend Ciara, whom I’d gone to university with, and had been living in Sydney for the past half-year, had been planning to make the trip with some co-workers from her engineering firm, and invited me along. Ciara flew into Melbourne late on a Thursday night. Since Landing Pads had a one week minimum stay policy, she spent the night in a hostel in the city centre, where I went to meet her on Friday morning.
Ciara, being an exceptionally proactive organiser, was looking to make the most of her day in Melbourne. The two of us spent the morning strolling around the Royal Botanic Gardens and climbing the Shrine of Remembrance, before catching a train out to the iconic Bathing Boxes on Brighton Beach. We headed back to Brunswick in the afternoon, to cook lunch, and stock up for the road trip ahead.
In the evening, the two of us took the shuttle bus out to the airport, where we met Yuri, and Garry, and Yuri’s ‘Kombi’. The old-style Volkswagen Camper, known as a Kombi down-under, was an essential cornerstone of Australian vagabonding culture, and the ideal vehicle to be doing our coastal road trip in. With myself and Ciara sitting in the two seats in the back, Yuri and Gary in front, and all our combined luggage and camping equipment in between us, we set off for Warrnambool, a small coastal city a four hour drive to the west.
Though charming, driving the long, hilly stretch of highway in the decades-old camper was somewhat rough. Yuri told us that he’d bought the van a few years back, for cheap in a poor state. He said the van had a shady history; there was some story about the police once using it as a ‘mobile interrogation unit’. Yuri had spent hundreds of hours and dollars on the kombi, restoring it to pristine nostalgia. Some of the fundamentals though, such as the poor suspension and rattling exterior, weren’t going to be fixed without a fight.
In a beachside campsite on the outskirts of Warrnambool, we met our four other traveling companions: Cameron, Kelli, Lionel, and Sophie. Six of us set up our family-sized, three roomed tent, with Yuri and his partner Sophie folding down the seats in the back of his Kombi, converting it into a bed, and then we all went off to the sand, to spend the rest of the evening passing around a bottle of whiskey.
Hours later, as we loudly made our way back to our spot in the campsite, and began getting ourselves ready for bed, the father of a young family stuck his head out of his tent, on the far side of the field. There was no ‘Hey guys, can you keep it down?’, or ‘My children are trying to sleep in here’. Instead, he went from zero to one hundred instantly.
“SHUT THE FUCK UP!” he roared, in his rough, rural dialect. “YOU STUPID FUCKS HAVE BEEN MAKING NOISE FOR THE LAST TEN FUCKING MINUTES! SHUT UP, JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP! I KNOW I’M NOT BEING NICE ABOUT THIS, BUT I DON’T FUCKING CARE! JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
He disappeared back inside his tent, leaving our group staring, stunned. Cameron leaned towards me.
“Welcome to the real Australia, mate.”
We spent the next two days driving east back towards Melbourne, along the length of the Great Ocean Road. Ciara had the entire itinerary worked out, with every tourist attraction and beauty spot along the route marked out. A dozen or so times, over the two days, we’d pull over to explore majestic caves and arches along the rugged limestone coast, or climb hills to stunning viewpoints, or stop in lively little seaside towns, to soak up the atmosphere. We took turns riding in Yuri’s Kombi, and Kelli’s Toyota 4X4, which was considerably more comfortable, albeit significantly less stylish.
We spent our Saturday night camping a short drive from the Great Ocean Road’s most famous attraction: the Twelve Apostles, a set of 50m tall sea stacks standing out from the cliffs, amongst the waves. We arrived to the Apostles in time for a spectacular crimson sunset over the ocean to the west, then stuck around, hoping to see the local colony of ‘Fairy Penguins’ make their daily scramble out of the water, and up the beach to the safety of their cliffside caves.
With light rapidly fading, we scanned the beach far below us, from the visitor’s centre on the headland. After twenty minutes of staring at rocks, trying to determine if they were moving, we saw a lone black dot emerge from the surf, survey the beach, then return to the waves. Five minutes later, another scout appeared by the shoreline, checked the beach for predatory Sea Eagles, and vanished. Suddenly, with daylight all but vanished, hundreds of tiny, dark shapes sprang out onto the beach, steadily progressed their way up the sand, and became lost amongst the boulders at the foot of the cliff. Within twenty seconds, all that remained were the dim streaks of thousands of footprints.
By Sunday evening, myself, Yuri, Garry, Ciara, and the Kombi had made it back to the outskirts of Melbourne. We’d parted ways with Kelli and her crew a few hours earlier. The Kombi was struggling. It would run well for a few kilometres, then slow, die, and need a few minutes to cool down. As we went on, the cooldown periods grew in duration, and the distances in between shrank. Yuri imagined the trouble was with the transmission.
As we stood on the side of the road, somewhere in the city’s western suburbs, I realised I was close to a train line, which could take me back to Brunswick. I said my goodbyes, and jumped ship. I later heard from Ciara that the Kombi managed to chug its way back to the airport, where Yuri dropped off her and Gary, then made it halfway to Bendigo, the town several hours to the north where Yuri worked, before dying completely. I was home safe in Landing Pads hostel by this stage, where I joined the gang for a few Sunday evening beers in the yard, before heading to bed early, to return to job hunting the following day.
A fortnight after my last interview, my phone rang with an invitation to another, for the role of ‘Process Worker’, with an agency called Staff Australia. It was clear from the phone conversation though, that I was actually being invited to be inducted into the agency, rather than interviewed for any specific position.
When I showed up to the Staff Australia headquarters (which, like most workplaces in the manufacturing/warehousing/labour industries, was located far into the south-eastern suburbs), I was brought into a classroom, along with fifteen or so other inductees, for two hours of presentations and paperwork. I looked at those around me. The group was made up mostly of casual-looking men in their twenties and thirties, wearing sleeveless tops and faded work trousers. I began feeling overdressed in my navy shirt and beige chinos. The few who turned up in suits, most of whom seemed like fresh arrivals from south Asian countries, stood right out.
The endless forms asked us to spell out our names, addresses, and banking details again and again. The workplace safety presentation didn’t deal with anything that wasn’t common sense. The short assessment was laughably simple, just there to ensure applicants had the most basic levels of English language and general competency. Some of the questions asked included:
Your manager asks you to pick up twenty units. The units are stored in boxes of five. How many boxes should you pick up?
Circle the code to the left of the equal sign which matches the code to the right:
HdQ78u = Hd8Q7U HdQ78u hDq76U kdQFtu
When handling a knife, you should always cut away from your body. True or false?
The face-to-face element of the induction involved a quick discussion about my skills and previous work experience, the kind of jobs I’d be interested in, and my current accommodation and transport situation. I was welcomed aboard the Staff Australia network, told my profile would be setup soon, for me to start receiving job offers, and was sent on my way.
Almost a year ago, back in Sofia in Bulgaria, I met a Frenchman called Alexis as we stepped off a bus from Thessaloniki in Greece together. In our hostel, we ran into Mitch, from the Netherlands. The three of us spent a few days together in the city, before parting ways. We each travelled east through Eurasia, with Alexis catching the Trans-Siberian Railway through Russia to the north, myself meandering my way through Iran and Pakistan to the south, and Mitch riding a motorbike through Kazakhstan in the centre. A year on, we all found ourselves in Melbourne.
We met up for a drink in the city centre one Sunday night, just as my time in Australia was beginning, and their’s was coming to an end. As we sat outside, on the bar’s first floor balcony, overlooking the bustling Elizabeth street below, soaking up the last light of the warm evening, Mitch and Alexis told me about their time in the country so far.
They’d bought a 4X4, and ventured off into the outback, camping in the desert and meeting ‘true’ Aussies in rough, rural villages. Their adventures sounded like non-stop barrages of things going wrong. The jeep had broken often. There were issues with the paperwork, causing them to race across the country to get it properly registered. Mitch had been bitten by a spider one night, with a lump the size of a tennis ball swelling up on his arm. All in all, they’d loved it.
The two of them were growing tired of Australia, though. They agreed with the conclusion I’d reached over the past few weeks: Australia’s reputation amongst young European travellers, as the land of easy money, wasn’t quite deserved.
Back in Ireland, and elsewhere I’d backpacked in Europe, everyone had a story about a friend, or a cousin, who’d moved to Australia, and began rolling in cash. After a month of job-hunting, and talking to other backpackers, I’d realised that life is only that easy for immigrants with specific sets of skills.
Had I arrived from Ireland with a background in carpentry, or plumbing, or nursing, or some other instantly-transferable skill in high demand, Australia would have lived up to its lucrative reputation. Without such training though, finding a job wasn’t so easy.
Alexis had several years of hospitality experience behind him. He’d managed to quickly find work in an upmarket restaurant, where he rose up from server to floor manager within a few months. His hours were unpredictable though, and his job constantly at risk. He was well aware that one slip up, one bad day, and he could instantly be replaced with another of the countless restaurant-experienced backpackers streaming into the city each day.
And that’s exactly what happened to him. He missed work once, after months of solid attendance, when he failed to wake for an early morning shift. He found his rostered hours being reduced to zero, and was summoned to management to explain himself. Although he wasn’t fired, and his hours soon returned to normal, the incident served as a sharp reminder that if he was looking for job security, and peace of mind while saving for next year’s trip to South America, he’d be better off back in Biarritz.
Mitch had found employment more difficult still. He’d worked as a policeman for a few years back in the Netherlands, before studying accountancy, and joining a firm, where he managed a list of personal clients. He was highly qualified, just not for the kind of work available to backpackers. He’d ended up working odd jobs with various labourning companies, painting walls, shovelling dirt, cleaning up building sites, that kind of thing. The number of hours he worked per week varied wildly. One day, after receiving a text from his manager saying there was no more work for the rest of the week, he too decided that it was time to call it quits on Australia, and return to real life back in Europe.
With my engineering background, I found myself more employable than Mitch, but less employable than Alexis. One thing we all agreed on though: if your intention was to work hard, and save up money on a working holiday visa, life here wasn’t too easy.
On Friday the 16th of March, just over five weeks after landing in Melbourne, I was summoned for two different interviews, on opposite sides of the city. Both arose from Gumtree job listings I’d applied for earlier in the week: one as a ‘Saw Operator’ in a steel fabrication workshop, advertised through a recruiting agency, the other as a delivery driver for a fireplace retailer, posted by the company themselves.
My first was at the main offices of Chelgrave Contracting, located amongst spacious industrial parks and busy commuter roads, at 10am. I met John, who sat me down in the boardroom, to have a chat about my experience with workshops and power tools. Although he ran through a few of the usual interview formalities, such as my self-assessment of my strengths and weaknesses, John seemed more interested in casual conversation, and using his intuition to make judgements.
John explained the details of the role to me: I’d be using a bandsaw to cut lengths of steel bar to size, and loading them into trucks. It wouldn’t be the most exciting job on the market, but with a set 42.5 hours per week, a rate of $27.50 per hour, and ongoing prospects, it was much better than what a backpacker could usually hope for.
John seemed very happy with me as a candidate. He told me that he’d phone up his client later on in the day, and arrange a meeting early next week.
“We’ll get you over to the workshop,” he said, “and if you think the job seems right for you, we’ll get you started as soon as possible.”
Once again, I seemed to all but have the job secured. I’d learned from my experience at Thermo Fisher, though, to not celebrate too early.
A bus, two trains, and a twenty minute power-walk later, I was outside the showroom of Smallwood Fireplaces, in time for my 2pm meeting with Chris, the general manager. The bright, stylish showroom, and the nearby warehouse where the delivery job would be based, were located in the western suburbs, much closer to the city centre than any other job I’d interviewed for. From what I’d seen of Footscray, the town I’d stepped off the train into, the area seemed like a pleasant, lively, diverse place.
Within a few minutes of sitting down with Chris, on a small table inside the showroom, I could tell that this wasn’t a ‘standard’ interview. There were no formalities here. Chris wasn’t looking for me to give an example of a time I took leadership in the workplace, or list aspects of my corporate skill set that I hoped to develop; he just wanted to sit down for a chat, see if I seemed like a sensible enough guy, explain the basics of the job, and see if I could start ASAP. From the offset, he spoke as if the job was mine for the taking, if I wanted it.
“You’ll spend the day out driving around the greater Melbourne area,” he said.
“Your hours will be 8am to 4pm, Monday to Friday.”
“We’re a small, family-run company: a few of us work here in the showroom, and it’ll be you and our warehouse manager Brett out in the factory.”
Chris told me that the current truck driver, a Canadian backpacker soon leaving the country, had been working with them, legally, for greater than the six month visa restriction. The trick, he said, was to have the payslips coming from two different addresses: for my first 6 months, I’d be ‘working’ in the showroom; after that, I’d be in the warehouse.
When Chris asked me what kind of a wage I’d be expecting, I was transparent, and told him about the saw operator job I’d interviewed for earlier that morning. He took out his phone, and opened up the calculator.
‘42.5 X $27.5 =’ he jotted down on paper on the table between us, ‘$1,168’
“The hours for this job would be a set forty per week,” he told me. “We can’t offer more. But we can set an hourly rate to match your other offer. That’s no problem.”
‘40 X $28 =’ he ran the numbers on his phone, ‘$1,120’
“So you would be getting around fifty dollars per week more in the other job. Although we’d give you an eighty-five dollar per month phone allowance, since you’ll often be calling our sales manager Amanda, when you’re out on the road. What do you think?”
Just twenty four hours earlier, I’d been sitting in the hostel lounge, sending off application number two-hundred-and-something, rapidly falling into desperation. For five weeks, I’d gotten nothing but cold shoulders and empty promises. Now, as I sat amongst the luxurious gas and wood fireplaces in the Smallwood showroom, I had two job offers in front of me, with each paying more than I’d thought realistic for a newly arrived working-holidayer.
The advantages of John’s saw operator were twofold: an extra $120 or so per month; and the fact that a job in a workshop would look better on my resume in the long-run. Chris’s delivery driver job, though, was the clear favourite: I’d be based in an attractive suburb, much closer to the city centre; I’d be working directly for a small, family-run company, rather than be contracted out through an agency; I’d be spending my days out exploring the far-flung corners of Melbourne in my truck; and the job had the potential to last until the end of my visa, so no more job hunting. Also, whereas I was very confident the saw operator position could work out, I KNEW that if shook Chris’s hand right now, I’d have the job.
“I’m willing to let go of that fifty dollars per week for a much better job,” I said. “I’d be very happy to accept!”
Chris and I shook on it, discussed where and when I was to be come Monday morning, and parted ways. I rode the train home, smiling to myself, delighted that things had finally worked out.