JOHN MENADUE. Our Working Holiday Programs have lost their way.

Oct 25, 2016


I have been an advocate of Working Holiday Programs (WHPs) for over 40 years. These programs were an excellent opportunity to ‘foster closer ties and cultural exchanges between Australia and partner countries with particular emphasis on young adults.’. The programs were reciprocal.

But the nature of WHP’s have changed dramatically in recent years. In Australia they have become mainly labor market and cheap labor programs.

A recent report of the Fair Work Ombudsman has drawn attention to widespread exploitation and underpayment of working holiday makers. 

My interest in WHP stems particularly from the agreement with Japan in 1980 which was the first such agreement between Australia and an Asian country.

In my autobiography ‘Things you learn along the way’ (1999) I described the origin of the WHP with Japan.

In my many years of involvement with Japan, it is the Working Holiday Program between the two countries that I recall as my most worthwhile contribution. Australia had established such reciprocal schemes with the United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland and the Netherlands. Under these schemes young people, up to the age of 25, would get a 12- month entry permit. They could then visit the other country and work six months and have six months holiday. The income earned would enable them to stay and travel around the country and so get a better understanding than they would as tourists. But no such scheme had been established between Australia and an Asian country; a legacy of White Australia. 

From 1977, when I arrived in Japan, I made a number of proposals to the Australian Government that we should establish such a scheme with Japan. I also publicly pressed the case. My advocacy went on for over two years, but I made no progress. The bureaucracy in Canberra, both Foreign Affairs and Immigration, didn’t say no. It is easier to do nothing; enthusiasm or passion is unseemly. 

We got a breakthrough when Japanese Prime Minister Ohira, a very good man, visited Australia in January 1980. In preparation, I had a luncheon discussion at the Commonwealth Club in Canberra with Ambassador Okawara, my counterpart in Australia, to see what could be announced to mark the visit. He was very well connected and respected in Japan. I told him that I had been promoting a Working Holiday Program but I was having difficulty in selling it to the Australian bureaucracy. I explained the scheme. He said, ‘Leave it to me. I will see what can be done at the Tokyo end’. 

At Prime Minister Ohira’s press conference at the conclusion of his visit, he said that Japan would be delighted if it were possible to negotiate a working holiday agreement between Australia and Japan. He said that Australia had expertise in such schemes and that perhaps an agreement with Australia was possible. Suddenly there was renewed interest. The Japanese had helped me outflank the Canberra bureaucracy. 

I returned to Australia at the end of the year, September 1980, as Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. I was able to pick up the proposal and conclude the agreement. There was no real opposition, only caution and lethargy. There were plenty of precedents for such a scheme. All that was required was a little enthusiasm to push it along. Malcolm Fraser and Ian Macphee, the Minister, were strong supporters. 

It was a real breakthrough, considering the racial history of both countries. I regard it as more important than the dramatic growth in Japanese tourism that came later when I was at Qantas. It provided a real enrichment of the relationship between the people of our two countries. 

The WHP concluded with Japan in 1980 was the fourth such program following those with the UK, Ireland and Canada in 1975.

The WHPs have now expanded to include 38 nation partners and regions. Another 20 more agreements are in prospect.

The number of working holiday makers in Australia has grown dramatically in recent years. In June 2016 there were 137,376 working holiday makers in Australia under various visa arrangements,including 30,909 on second year- visas,. The main source countries were the UK,Taiwan and South Korea,

Not only has the size of the WHPs dramatically increased, but the nature of them has changed. When we negotiated the arrangement with Japan in 1980 when I was Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, we saw the program as being about ‘cultural exchange’. The program allowed visa holders to earn some ‘pocket money’, with emphasis on cultural exchange rather than the labour market.

The WHPs have now become overwhelmingly about labour recruitment and a source of cheap labour. As the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) has reported there is widespread exploitation and abuse.

Based on a survey of over 4,000 people, the FWO has come to some disturbing conclusions about the Working Holiday Programs.. There is

  • Underpayment and non-payment of wages,
  • Sexual harassment and workplace health and safety issues,
  • Exploitative workforce cultures and behaviours in isolated and remote workplaces,
  • Employers and hostels withholding passports without authority,
  • Employers engaging in sophisticated labour supply chains involving sham contracting, with visa holders being engaged as contractors and not employees,
  • Employers making unlawful deductions from wages and unlawfully requiring visa holders to spend part or all of their wages in an unreasonable manner.

The FWO report also drew attention to the particular problem of working holiday makers from Asian countries. It said

‘Visa holders from Asian countries (who are among the more recent groups granted access to the visa) were more likely to have: low awareness of their workplace rights in Australia; money deducted from their pay without a verbal or written agreement; paid to complete the requirements to obtain a second year visa; and paid an agent to secure regional work to meet the eligibility requirements of the second year visa.’ 

There have clearly been particular problems in parts of rural Australia that are dependent on working holiday makers with their cheap labor.

The Working Holiday Program is now a labour market program which has significant implications for the job market and jobs for  Australians.A responsible government would not just acknowledge this. It would change the Program to ensure it  minimises harm  to Australian job seekers and removes the obvious incentive for wage fraud and exploitation of visa holders.

There are now in Australia at any time about one million people on temporary residence visas with rights to work– mainly working holiday makers, 457 visa holders, students and New Zealanders.Like the WHP these programs have been allowed to grow without adequate attention to their labour market impacts on young Australians and the exploitation of visa holders desperate for work

A thorough review is necessary.



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