Making hay is no fun, even when the sun is shining. It is back-breaking work; you acquire what feels like a terminal case of hay fever, and whether you struggle with bales in Berkshire or Bavaria, you will be badly paid.

Yet thousands of British people are sweating away in odd corners of foreign fields, performing thankless tasks for just enough of a pittance to pay for the next journey. They are slowly and painfully having the experience of a lifetime, working their way round the world.

Whether you want to learn a language, make friends or just get a suntan, the idea of getting paid at the same time is enticing. Unfortunately, Britain is not alone in struggling with recession. The world has changed in the past three years, and the prospect of finding work abroad with the ease of the characters in television's Auf Wiedersehen, Pet has faded.

German unification means Gastarbeiter, the guest workers who previously provided the cheap labour to fuel former West Germany's economic miracle, are less-than-honoured guests. Now that the seals around the nations of the former Eastern bloc are broken, millions of job-hunters have arrived in Western Europe.

Europe's relative affluence attracts labour from the south, too: the tomato crop in southern Italy is now the preserve of African workers, who each morning take part in a squalid auction of their labour. Across in France, prospects for British travellers to take part in the harvest are dwindling: this year, many grape-picking jobs will be taken by Francophone Africans, while others have been lost to mechanical pickers.

In the face of such intense competition and rising unemployment, a little initiative is called for. I once had a girlfriend in Germany and financed my visits by importing cut-price Levi jeans from a Coventry market; she took advance orders, her fellow students got cheap jeans, and on a good run the profits just about paid for the ferry fare.

British travellers have some distinct advantages. Our mother tongue is highly sought-after and the ability to teach it can get you work in Minsk or Montevideo. British connections are ripe for exploitation: I made a radio commercial in Santa Barbara, California, purely on the strength of a not-very-good English accent.

Susan Griffith, author of Work Your Way Around the World (Vacation Work, pounds 8.95), has devoted the past 10 years of her professional life to advising those who are considering working abroad. But even with encouragement from people who have been there and returned to tell the tale, overcoming inertia can be difficult.

'The hardest thing to do is take off,' says Claire Mortimer, who is returning to her job teaching English in Spain this weekend. Her career as a working traveller has taken her to Barcelona via Nepal and India. 'Once you're away, it's easy - there are so many other people doing the same thing.'

Fellow travellers can be invaluable in suggesting local opportunities. Do not set your sights too high, however. The reason you can get an unskilled job in Malaga or Marseilles is because none of the locals wants to do it. It may be dirty or dreary and it will be poorly paid.

Few working travellers get rich, although Tom Ritchie set off from Sussex with a near-empty wallet and only the vaguest of plans, and now runs the biggest bean sprout business in Denmark.

Tessa Shaw looks back with considerable fondness at her time spent collecting snails in the Ardeche region of France, despite the pre-dawn starts. 'The ideal ones are the size of a 50p piece,' she explains. 'With an early start you can fill several buckets, put them on the train to Paris and take the rest of the day off.'

The concept of men going off to seek their fortune abroad while women stay at home is a thing of the past. Women now enjoy a wide and wacky selection of jobs overseas while men tend to land dreary occupations. I wish I could have my time again as washer-up/painter and decorator/machine-minder-in-a-factory-making-plastic-boxes-for-laborator y-rats - some of these case histories sound much more enjoyable.

Tales abound of people setting off with a fiver and spending two years away, but progress is smoother if you have some capital - many countries require proof of financial self-sufficiency before they will let you in.

One way to raise money is to become a guinea-pig for medical research. I earned pounds 150 testing an allergy suppressant at a research clinic opposite Smithfield meat market, and it was probably the toughest money I have ever earned. Ignoring the risks of taking untested drugs, my arms were in agony after endless blood tests.

You can avoid exhausting your capital on travel costs by working as an air courier. The fastest way for businesses to send 'time-sensitive documents' is as accompanied baggage, and you can be the bum-on-the-seat that travels with them. Your reward is an extremely cheap flight, perhaps pounds 150 to cross the Atlantic and return.

The concept of working a passage continues in the US. The 'driveaway' industry, delivering cars across the country, is big business and many of the agencies that arrange deliveries prefer foreigners - from experience, they are more likely to arrive on time with the vehicle in one piece. I spent 30 minutes phoning around from a motel in Miami, and secured an open-top MG which had to be driven to the West Coast. This was terrific fun at first, but living the American dream began to pall after 3,000 miles. Yet even paying for fuel, my trip cost less than the bus fare.

When you apply for entry to the US, you have to certify that you are not an undesirable alien: a war criminal, narcotics addict or job-seeker.

If only minimum wage legislation were enforced as strictly as laws keeping out would-be workers, travellers would be a more prosperous bunch. One tenet of the European Community is free movement of labour but, like many EC ideas, it tends to be a bit sluggish; before you start work in France or Germany you have to register with the authorities.

The efficiency of British immigration law in excluding 'economic migrants' from outside the EC was demonstrated this week with the case of the male Swede hoping to be an au pair. Most other countries control the activities of visitors with similar vigour. Strictest of all is the US, where recent legislation means that anyone who employs an illegal alien may be fined heavily, while the hapless worker faces deportation.

Thousands of Britons work in the US, however, some legally on the schemes run for young people, but many illicitly. Immigration officials are accustomed to people entering under false pretences, and sometimes give genuine tourists a hard time - I saw one young woman reduced to tears at a US airport by aggressive questioning about her intentions.

Australia takes a similarly tough line; at the end of a long flight the last thing you want is an interrogation about your means of support. Under the excellent Working Holiday scheme, it is possible for young people to work legally, although the application procedure is lengthy. In New Zealand, you can apply for a work permit after having entered the country.

In other parts of the world, immigration procedures are easier to circumvent on the theory that few people would want to go to, say, Paraguay, to look for work. The British people teaching English in Buenos Aires, Bogota and Brasilia just hop over the nearest border when their 90-day time limit is reached, then cross back to get their passport replenished for another three months.

Lest you get carried away, beware: the authorities take offences seriously; you will certainly find it difficult to return to Australia or the US in the future.

Camp counsellor

'LISTEN, you delinquent little shit - you're only here because your mum's paying dollars 2,000 to get rid of you for a few weeks.'

Greg Clinker says that this outburst, directed at a 14-year-old thug called 'Mad Mike', was the low point of his work at a summer camp in New York State.

Summer camps are an American institution. For a few weeks, youngsters can enjoy the great outdoors while learning new skills and meeting other children. British students are frequently recruited as 'camp counsellors' to help run them. Greg, an engineering student at Coventry, found work at a camp in the Catskill Mountains.

He says the rich kids ('who came loaded with luggage which they made the bus driver carry to their cabins') gave new meaning to the term precocious, and Mike was the epitome of spoilt-bratness. He was on all kinds of medication in a bid to moderate his mental state, and Greg and the other counsellors were solemnly warned not to draw attention to his condition. They immediately christened him Mad Mike.

Greg was originally employed to teach karate. Such was the limited attention span of his young charges, however, that as soon as they discovered they could not go straight to splitting paving stones with bare hands, most gave up and moved on to go-karting. Only Ivan, a 15-year-old street fighter anxious to expand his repertoire, showed any long-term interest. So Greg was assigned to teaching woodwork and cutting the grass.

He earned just pounds 500 in the eight weeks at the camp, but the fringe benefits were considerable: a free flight to New York and back, board and lodging at the camp and 'an instant collection of travelling companions'. After two months of educating, entertaining and admonishing young Americans, Greg embarked on a lightning tour of the eastern United States: Niagara, Detroit, Chicago, St Louis, Memphis, Washington and Philadelphia, driving a rental car into the ground.

'It was a secure and easy introduction to America,' he says, although he fears for the future of the country, having met its latest generation.

'You think it's your holiday. It's not - it's your mum's,' was Greg's parting comment to Mad Mike.

The literary chambermaid

DURING her first long vacation from reading English at Oxford, Linda Cookson applied for a job as a chambermaid in a German hotel. The hotel had a deliberate policy of over-recruiting since, from experience, a couple of chambermaids invariably failed to show up. But for once, everyone turned up to claim their jobs. The manager sent Linda - the applicant with the best knowledge of German - to work at a winery run by the same company. It specialised in 'sticky yellow wine with fancy labels', she later


'My job had rather a grand title. I was translator/interpreter/ hostess. The first two bits involved dealing with catalogues and advertising campaigns for the English-speaking market and answering any foreign correspondence, all of which made me feel terribly important.

'The third bit I was rather less keen on. This involved entertaining visiting coach parties in the wine cellars. The whole guided tour I gave them was utter fabrication . . . I also had to keep explaining away my reluctance to join the visitors in a wine-tasting by pretending to be on antibiotics.'

Her work in advertising helped to direct her career towards creative writing. One of her first published stories was Herr Franz's Parrot and was based on a particularly unpleasant character at the winery. The German translation has apparently sold like hot Pfannkuchen since its publication last year.

Marin County milkmaid

JANET, 18, from Dorset, was working as an au pair for a family in Marin County, California, when she was recruited by a dairy marketing consortium to model for their advertising. She matched their image of an all-American girl, even though she comes from Weymouth rather than Wyoming.

At the time she began her modelling career she was working illegally. Later she returned to work legitimately in the US at the Museum of Immigration on Ellis Island in New York, researching the 'huddled masses' who arrived from Europe in the days when immigrants were welcomed.

By another strange twist, she now works at a Job Centre in central London, where she helps job-seekers find catering work in competition with illegal immigrants from Poland and Russia.

The travel business

THE summer of discontent in the travel industry is drawing to a close, with more than the usual number of casualties among British tour operators. But since tourism is now the world's biggest industry - and a fairly labour-intensive one - it makes sense to seek work in it.

Many of the people who work in hotels and restaurants are transient, creating a steady flow of vacancies. Mobility of labour reaches new extremes at Yulara, the resort built to serve Ayers Rock. Staff at the hotels and restaurants get long-service awards after just two years.

I met James at a 'club resort' in the Greek Peloponnese where he was clearing tables. The British tour operator believed its clients preferred to be waited on by English speakers and hired students to work at its resorts. With the Aegean about 10 yards from the restaurant, James agreed he was indeed fortunate.

My experiences in the world's biggest business are rather less savoury, such as cleaning out rental cars (it is shocking how many used condoms you find) and charter aircraft (where sick bags are the greatest peril).

Claire Mortimer could be described as one of life's temps. She has worked selling antiques in London's Portobello Road and in secretarial and clerical sections. She works to pay for her travels. After making the traditional journey through South-east Asia to Australia and New Zealand, she spent six months trekking through South America.

She impressed Encounter Overland with her record and resourcefulness, and landed a job in the London office. A company policy is to give its staff experience abroad, and she was sent to work at the office in the Himalayas.

An outgoing personality was all Christine Webster needed to secure a job as a hostess on a cruise liner. She ran the disco as couples smooched around the dance floor and the vessel steamed around the Mediterranean. Her other duties included the selection of guests for the captain's table and dealing with on-board deaths. Both tasks, she says, required equal amounts of discretion.

Tout and about

IF YOU cannot get a job in tourism, you can always prey upon tourists. With the decline in the package holiday, at some European resorts timeshare touts are in danger of outnumbering the tourists they seek.

The system is simple. Young Brits approach holidaymakers with a proposition to visit a timeshare development. The bait is the promise of champagne or cash in return for sitting through a dull video and enduring a sharp salesman's patter. The tout gets commission on every person he can get to sign up.

Some make no pretence about it. 'Do us a favour and go along, 'cos then I get pounds 1,' implored a woman who accosted me on the sand at Albufeira on the Portuguese Algarve. It was raining and I went along; honesty is the best policy.


Books: Work Your Way Around the World by Susan Griffith is published by Vacation Work (0865 241978) and is priced at pounds 8.95. The company publishes other titles intended for working travellers, including Working in Ski Resorts and The Au Pairs & Nannies Guide to Working Abroad, and distributes other books such as The Best Summer Jobs in Alaska.

Magazines: Silk Road Publications (0279 411105) produces a quarterly magazine called The Working Traveller, which contains advice and details of vacancies.

Overseas Jobs Express is another publication providing information and opportunities.

Further information: The British Council (071- 930 8466) runs various schemes for teaching English abroad.

Students can get working visas through BUNAC (071-251 3472).

Camp America (071-589 3223) offers placements in summer camps.

(Photographs omitted)