March of the white commonwealth: Is UK entry for working holidays easier if you're the right colour?

Mary Braid
Sunday 23 January 1994 01:02

OUTSIDE it is pure British winter, torrential rain lashing the dirty pavements. But in the Prince of Teck pub, Earl's Court, west London, the customary evening homage to a distant, warmer Australia has begun.

At the Teck, a first port of call for the thousands of young Australians who arrive in London each year, Australianness is crudely defined. On this 'quiet' evening more than 100 customers are drinking and chatting in the shadow of a giant, resident kangaroo sporting its own can of Fosters. There are 'Kangaroo Valley' T-shirts - in honour of the Antipodean settlement which has spread west from Earl's Court since the 1960s - a plastic hat, with cliche corks, is displayed behind the bar and the toilets are labelled Sheilas and Bruces.

Like the fittings, the barmen are exclusively Australian; and a whiff of expatriate chauvinism pervades. Despite the large group of New Zealanders and a smattering of white South Africans, the barman serving Queensland's own Bundaberg rum is sure of the pecking order. 'If the customers aren't Australian they want to be,' he bawls above the noise.

Despite the UK's 2.8 million registered unemployed, young Antipodeans appear to find jobs here with remarkable ease. A quick flick through TNT, the free weekly magazine for Australians in Britain, confirms what pub-goers already know: young Australians and New Zealanders are everywhere, having long since sewn up the capital's bar staff and nannying sectors. The white Commonwealth is well represented in the fields of accounting and dentistry, too.

More than 200,000 Australians are estimated to be living temporarily or permanently in the UK. A further 40,000 New Zealanders are also said to be here at any one time. Most live in London and the South-east and a significant portion are young travellers on working holiday visas for up to two years available to Commonwealth citizens under the age of 27.

TNT and its sister paper Southern Cross hint at the elaborate and well-established network which guarantees employment, entertainment and accommodation for Antipodeans in London. In the small ads, 'Ozzie-Kiwi' houses seek flatmates, cheap hotels with Australian management tout for Aussie custom, and temporary accountants, teachers and secretaries - as well as bar staff and nannies - are eagerly sought. A host of companies offer special advice on tax. One even offers tips on how to obtain that handy - and legal - second passport.

This huge white Commonwealth community gets on with its business without much public or official interference. It is unlikely that immigration officials will ever send a packed Qantas plane back whence it came.

'It is fairly flexible; we don't get much hassle from immigration,' admits John MacDonald, office manager of Drifters, a company which specialises in bringing young Antipodeans to Britain.

Regulations on the duration and type of work they can do are sometimes bent. Most travellers admit that over-staying is rather commonplace. 'But no one looks for you,' explains one. 'It just means you can't leave the country to travel. When you do leave you get your hand slapped by immigration and they stamp your passport so that you cannot come back for a few years. Usually you've worked that out and it suits you.'

According to Mr MacDonald, the vast majority of overstayers do not break the law for long. Better weather and employment prospects eventually lure them home. Mr MacDonald, a New Zealander, has spend a large part of the past decade in London. Like many New Zealanders and Australians he enjoys patriality because his grandparents were British citizens. Through Drifters he helps less intrepid travellers, introducing 4,000 new arrivals a year to the ready-made Antipodean community. 'We pick them up from the airport, book them into a hotel for three nights, give them maps of London and take them on trips of the capital and outside.'

Others, such as Michael Colling, 21, a sheepshearer from Coober Pedy, southern Australia, who flew into London six days ago 'to see the world', make their own way. After spending a couple of days with relatives in Surrey, he is drinking at the Teck with his new mate Jimmy Wishbone, 24, a rather hostile white South African who eyes all journalists with suspicion. The Teck is popular not just with Australians but with London's entire white Commonwealth community and its orbiting nation, South Africa.

The men are paying pounds 9 a night to share one room with four other young South African, Australian and New Zealand travellers in a nearby hotel. Some of the room-mates are veteran nomads, others, like Michael, are just contemplating the start of the trail.

Michael, plump and chummy and abroad for the first time, wrinkles his nose at his first British winter. Coober Pedy is so hot that locals build their houses into the side of hills. He is in no hurry to find a job but has already heard he should have no problem.

Some Teck customers say they were surprised they came by work so easily. 'But I am told we have a reputation for hard work,' said Cynthia Schouten, 21, from Auckland who has Dutch parents and is in Britain on her EC passport. A receptionist at home, she is now living with an elderly woman in return for her board and lodgings.

That reputation is echoed by Jane Dennehy, partner in Walleroo Nannies, Kensington, which places a few hundred New Zealand and Australian nannies a year with British families. She also points out that the women are middle-class and extremely well-educated. Hire a New Zealander, and you could find a graduate looking after your baby. One middle-class working mother, who has employed both New Zealand and Australian nannies, explains that the women 'fitted in' more easily with her family's routine and interests than a previous working-class nanny from Newcastle.

The ease with which young people from white Commonwealth countries enter and are welcomed by Britain angers Mahmud Quayum, an adviser at Camden Law Centre.

He is appealing against the Home Office's refusal to allow Bangladeshi Anwara Begum, 24, to stay in Britain under the working holiday scheme. Although the Home Office insists the scheme is open to all Commonwealth countries, Mr Quayum claims the black Commonwealth countries are discriminated against.

Ms Begum came to see her epileptic sister Jahan Aza, 37, as a visitor and wants to extend her stay to two years by working as her paid nurse under the scheme. 'I will pay her to look after me and she will be no burden on the state,' said Mrs Aza, a mother of nine whose epilepsy is worsening with age. 'There is no reason for her application to be turned down.'

Anwara was unaware that she could apply for a working holiday in Britain when she left Bangladesh. According to Mr Quayum it would have been remarkable if she had even heard of the scheme. A few years ago he contacted all the black Commonwealth countries to ask how they publicised the scheme that most young Aussies and Kiwis are familiar with. The upshot was that they did not.

Young Australians and New Zealanders say they still feel Britain has an obligation to them and are angry that the Government recently reduced the time those with British grandparents can live and travel in the country.

But Claude Moraes, of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, says the new Commonwealth feels it has just as strong a call on the motherland. He says: 'There are no official statistics to back up the Government's belief that people from new Commonwealth countries are more likely to outstay their welcome. In the Indian subcontinent and even more so in the Caribbean the idea of belonging to the Empire was huge. The attitude to these countries now has created a sense of betrayal.'

(Photograph omitted)

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