Foreign investment of a different kind

Host: Dampier Downs Station
Written by Anne Marie Huey – Station Manager, Dampier Downs.

Working on a cattle station is a complex job that requires a diverse skill-set. Working cattle, building and maintaining fences, operating machinery, servicing equipment, and keeping water flowing are all essential tasks that must be performed on a regular basis. In addition, each station has its own unique set of circumstances that will dictate how jobs are done. For that reason, on-the-job training is a mainstay of the cattle industry.

Educating weaners – and staff – an essential part of station activity.

This is not to say a formal education isn’t valuable (and I would encourage anyone committed to establishing a long-term career in the industry to look into the wide range of courses and programs available) but it does mean it is possible to find a job without formal qualifications.

Step into any stock camp in northern Australia and you will find a motley assortment of first year jackaroos and jillaroos. There will be school-leavers experiencing a ‘gap year’ before heading off to University, youngsters not suited to academic pursuits keen to start some practical work, the odd rogue hoping to escape a chequered past, and – of course – the ubiquitous backpacker.

Backpackers can, on occasion, get something of a bad rap. The truth is, without them agricultural businesses in Australia would struggle to survive. Two regular thorns of contention when discussing backpackers is the common assertions that they are “taking Australian jobs” and that they are only hired because it is “cheaper than employing Australians”.  As someone who employs a lot of backpackers I can debunk both these urban myths.

At Dampier Downs we have one recruitment process and it is open to everyone. When looking for staff at the start of this season I had a total of 89 applications. Of those, a grand total of three were Australian. Of those three, only one completed the recruitment process in it’s entirety (as opposed to 25 backpackers).

This is not to say that every backpacker that applies for a job has a sterling application – far from it – but when the odds are so heavily in favour of overseas workers it is inevitable that many of them will be short-listed. Which brings me to my next point – the fallacy that backpackers somehow represent cheap labour.

Whichever way you cut it, employing staff is an expensive process. Firstly, there is the enormous amount of time it takes to assess applications and conduct interviews. Once the preferred staff member is identified it then takes a trip to town to collect them and then more time spent on inductions and finally the all-important on-the-job training. As backpackers tend to be more transient than locals this process has to be repeated more frequently which adds up to more expense. There is also a significant loss in time and productivity associated with constantly re-teaching basic skills to an ever-changing work force.

Learning to weld.

While there may be some unscrupulous operators who seek to take advantage of backpackers, there is also only one award wage and it applies to backpackers and Australians alike. It doesn’t matter what passport you hold on Dampier Downs, wages and conditions are the same – as are duties, roles, responsibilities, and expectations. Importantly, backpackers must make at least the minimum wage to qualify for a second year visa (the main motivation behind many of them undertaking regional work) so paying anything less is counter-productive. When looked at objectively, backpackers are actually more expensive than locals.

So why would anyone hire a backpacker? Well, they do have their advantages.

Firstly, as stated earlier, it’s a numbers game. There are simply more backpackers applying for these jobs. Many of them also have readily transferable skills that can off-set the lack of experience in other key areas. So while I may not be actually looking for a carpenter per se, it certainly helps if a candidate has prior experience with power tools and a basic understanding of construction principles.

Backpackers also tend to be a bit older than the average Australian school-leaver. This often translates to better life skills. While I appreciate everyone has to start somewhere, as a small, family-run business I simply don’t have time to mother-hen people who have never had to do their own washing. We don’t employ a cook and so I need to know whoever I employ will be capable of keeping themselves fed – and cleaning up after themselves. Let’s face it, anyone who has managed to re-locate themselves to the other side of the world, navigate their way to the Kimberley and secure a job (often in a second language) is likely to be resourceful and self-sufficient, two important qualities.

Backpackers, by their very nature, often have enormous curiosity about the world. This is a major advantage when working in an area far beyond a person’s usual comfort zone as it helps to build resilience. It’s also a great reminder to me as to just how special this life can be. Things that have become so ordinary and every-day as to be considered mundane can be a source of fascination to someone else.

It’s sometimes necessary to view the world through another’s eyes to truly appreciate what could otherwise be taken for granted. As a case in point, we recently had an employee who was fascinated by ant beds. To me, these rust-red mounds have become so familiar as to be barely noticeable. However, discussing the incredible feats of engineering that go into their construction and the vital role termites play in the ecosystem renewed my appreciation for these tiny critters and all others like them.

Ant beds. An engineering marvel often taken for granted.

I suppose I also have a degree of personal bias. I spent the best part of my 20’s backpacking around the world, working a range of jobs, and having adventures I couldn’t have imagined growing up in a small country town. The only reason this was possible was because someone took a chance on me and I can’t begrudge this next generation of explorers the same opportunity.

I am also really proud of what I do every day and genuinely enjoy educating young people about agriculture.  Sure, in a few months’ time they will have moved on and their time on Dampier Downs will be so much fodder for a good yarn at the bar. But perhaps one day, when they are browsing the supermarket shelves in their home country they will see a label proudly stating ‘Product of Australia’ and think back to the time they built a paddock in raw scrub, smile, pick it up, and support someone like me whose job it is to feed the world.

So here’s to the humble backpacker who – when all is said and done – is really no different to any other employee. Some are great, some are woefully unprepared, but they are all someone’s daughter/son/grandchild/brother/sister and as such deserve to be treated with the same respect as any other young person willing to have a go.