Now that the Australian bushfires are declared as contained, the work to salvage, clean-up, debris removal, repair and rebuild to get businesses and homeowners back on their feet can begin. To get the needed “boots on the ground”, Alan Tudge, the country’s acting minister for immigration, is introducing some changes in the immigration laws that will allow foreign backpackers to stay in Australia for an additional 6 months. The main condition is that they work to aid in the recovery efforts.

On Feb. 13, New South Wales Rural Fire Service deputy commissioner Rob Rogers said in a video shared on Twitter that the bushfires were contained. He credited the recent torrential rains for the relief and said, “We can really focus on helping people rebuild.” The downside to the rains was additional damage caused by flooding.

Shortly after Roger’s video, Tudge issued a statement, "These hard-working Australians have been hit by the recent bushfires, but from today they can employ backpackers for six months longer, helping them at a critical time in the recovery effort.”

He continued, "It means working holidaymakers [the backpackers] can help rebuild homes, fences, and farms, they can get onto properties and help with demolition, land clearing, and repairing dams, roads, and railways. We need all hands on deck.”

Allowing backpackers to extend the normal 6-month visa to 12 months makes sense for any number of reasons:

  • Backpackers are used to being in rugged outdoor environments.
  • 2015 data from Tourism Research Australia showed that over 600,000 backpackers visited Australia and 72% of them stayed near Sydney, the capital of NSW that suffered the brunt of the bushfire damage.
  • Assuming no great changes from the 2015 data, only about 1/3 of the backpackers already work during their backpacking holiday meaning that over 400,000 people would be eligible to apply. If only 5% agree to sign up that is a significant addition of 20,000 bodies to the workforce.
  • Tudge’s said, "Backpackers tend to earn the money then go and spend it in a very short amount of time…” indicating that any wages paid to the backpackers would likely remain in the local area for an additional 6 months.

Australia's minister for trade, tourism, and investment, Simon Birmingham, supported the visa extensions. He said, "We know tourism businesses in fire-affected communities are doing it tough, and the more tourism dollars that these working holidaymakers can inject into these economies, the quicker these businesses can get back on their feet.”