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The Australian Working Holiday programme: tourism or migration?

The Australian Working Holiday programme: tourism or migration?
Author: Anna Stankiewicz
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Abstract: This paper explores the role and changes of the Australian Working Holiday visa scheme, with a particular emphasis on the labour market and Working Holiday Makers (WHMs) themselves. Although WHMs are often described as tourists (and defined as such in official government publications), they transcend traditional concepts of tourism, migration and mobility. These are further explored in the paper with relation to seasonal workers and holiday makers.

Keywords: working holiday, visa, Australia, migration, mobilities, seasonal, backpacking, labour, WHMs.

Tourists under the Australian Working Holiday visa programme transcend traditional concepts of migration, tourism, and mobility. These Working Holiday Makers (WHMs) ultimately inhabit ‘a space somewhere between short-term tourists and long-term immigrants’ where migration becomes circular rather than permanent (Allon, et al., 2008: 8; see also Robertson, 2014; Duncan, et al., 2013).

Whilst backpackers seek to experience risk, adventure, and relaxation through working and holidaying, ultimately many WHMs become immersed into local communities and their way of life through full time work and short term residence. The working holiday may provide periods of leisure and relaxation through travel, but often becomes a “relocation of familiar work routines, regulations, and social relations in new places and contexts” (Allon, et al., 2008: 16). Many WHMs become acculturated into the local way of life, viewing themselves as migrants rather than tourists, citing the quest for authenticity and immersion as factors in temporary residence in Australia (Robertson, 2014).

Since the programme’s inception in 1975, international migration patterns have changed from long-term migration towards non-permanent and temporary movement of people, subsequently altering the role of the Australian Working Holiday scheme. It could be argued that it is now less about social and cultural exchange and travel, and more about “bringing specific forms of temporary labour into Australia” (Robertson, 2014: 1920), ultimately becoming a labour accrual strategy.

The temporal restrictions (e.g. maximum time worked with one employer) imposed by the state construct a flexible, mobile, and cheap workforce (Robertson, 2014) by acting as restrictions and barriers of entry to skilled jobs for the WHMs with employers preferring to hire staff on permanent basis. WHMs exhibit characteristics of vulnerable workforce, such as age, lack of previous experience in jobs performed, lack of adequate training, labour-intensive work, and lack of secure residence status with limited social and political power (Reilly, 2015). The backpacker segment can be subject to temporal and spatial segregation, placing them within ‘night-time economies’ and the grey economies, and subject to violence or exploitation (Robertson, 2014). Ultimately, backpackers become highly sought-after for a variety of sectors, including the tourism sector itself which relies on seasonal and casual employees (Allon, et al., 2008). Because WHMs are seen as mobile, youthful, adventurous and willing to “take on experiences and challenges of working on farms and other seasonal work” (Allon, et al., 2008: 12) they often undertake the type of work which segregates them from the wider community, through living with other WHMs and working unsociable hours and long shifts (Robertson, 2014). This is in line with temporary migrants, which disproportionately concentrate in particular industries and geographical locations (Hugo, 2006), further exemplifying the blurred boundary between the working holiday as a holiday and labour motivated migration.

Arguably, immigration programmes such as the Working Holiday in Australia fail to achieve their intended policy aims, ultimately leading to labour market distortions and dependence on the employment of migrant workers in certain industries (Joppe, 2012). This can also lead to the displacement of native workers (Allon, et al., 2008) as well as exploitation of backpackers or temporary migrants (Allon, 2004).

The changes in staggered mobility patterns and alterations to the Working Holiday visa resulted in a shift from a programme with a focus on cultural exchange on fostering enhanced relations between select countries, into a modern labour strategy addressing labour shortages in the Australian economy. The introduction of the extended second year visa has also contributed to the Working Holiday visa as a way of securing residence in Australia as opposed to a supplement whilst traveling across the country. Moreover, the introduction of the requirement to work 88 days in rural and regional Australia in selected industries in order to secure the extended visa, can be seen as (1) a way of addressing labour shortages, and (2) distributing WHMs from urban enclaves to regional and outback locations in order to spread the impacts and benefits of backpackers. In addition to temporal limitations imposed by the state, it ultimately poses a barrier of entry to skilled jobs. Ultimately, WHMs are seen as more desirable than immigrants and refugees for both the state and businesses, due to their characteristics of being young, resourceful, without dependants, highly educated and skilled, and willing to undertake labour intensive work at lower rates of payment. Subsequently, WHMs exhibit characteristics of vulnerable workforce and are at risk of being exploited, particularly in industries which are highly sensitive to the cost of labour (Reilly, 2015).


Allon, F. (2004). Backpacker Heaven The Consumption and Construction of Tourist Spaces and Landscapes in Sydney. Space and Culture, 7(1), pp.49-63.

Allon, F., Anderson, K. and Bushell, R. (2008). Mutant mobilities: backpacker tourism in ‘global’ Sydney. Mobilities, 3(1), pp.73-94.

Duncan, T., Scott, D.G. and Baum, T. (2013). The mobilities of hospitality work: An exploration of issues and debates. Annals of Tourism Research, 41(1), pp.1-19.

Hugo, G. (2006). Temporary migration and the labour market in Australia. Australian Geographer, 37(2), pp.211-231.

Joppe, M. (2012). Migrant workers: Challenges and opportunities in addressing tourism labour shortages. Tourism Management, 33(3), pp.662-671.

Reilly, A. (2015). Low-cost labour or cultural exchange? Reforming the Working Holiday visa programme. The Economic and Labour Relations Review, pp.474-489.

Robertson, S. (2014). Time and temporary migration: The case of temporary graduate workers and working holiday makers in Australia. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 40(12), pp.1915-1933.