Margaret River is a town which is synonymous with backpacker regional work. Be it grape picking in summer or vine pruning jobs in winter, there is a demand for casual labour pretty much all year round. However, the competition for winter regional work can be tough. And people often miss out because they don’t know the right routes to follow.
Having just come back from working as vine pruners in the Margaret River region, we have been asked numerous times by other backpackers just how we did it. So, we’ve decided to put together a handy blog post, covering everything you need to know about getting pruning jobs in Margaret River.
Pruning Jobs – Agency or Direct?
Because there is such a high demand for vineyard workers, a number of recruitment agencies exist in the town. The main three are Labour Solutions, Down to Earth, and Vinepower. There are also a few smaller ones around. All of them have Facebook pages where they post when it’s time to register with them for work. Typically, backpackers are advised to just go and register with them straight away.
Agencies pay piece rate, which as of August 2018 sat at around 40 cents per vine. If you go direct to a vineyard, they tend to pay an hourly rate. This is currently about $23 an hour. We lived with some other backpackers who were with an agency, and they actually decided to leave prematurely because the piece rate pay was just too poor, despite them working longer hours than us and often weekends too.
It depends on a lot of factors, but for us we felt that direct employment was the way to go. If you are looking at getting pruning work, try to get to the area around mid-May as most vineyards start pruning at the start of June. Any later than this and you may struggle.
Agencies – They Said What Now?!
Let us be completely honest and transparent here: all of these opinions are our own, and are based solely on OUR PERSONAL experience. However, having read a few similar accounts on Facebook backpackers pages, it seems that we are not unique in the issues we encountered. We are in no means saying that agencies should be avoided, as they work out well for a lot of backpackers. They just didn’t work out for us.
We arrived in Margaret River about six weeks before the start of pruning (we arrived in April, pruning starts in June). We drove around to the agencies and enquired about registering for the upcoming season. In the main we were greeted by friendly employees who simply informed us that we were a bit early and to keep an eye on their Facebook pages. Our experience with Vinepower was slightly different.
Although the greeting was friendly enough, as soon as we explained that we were both looking to start pruning jobs the demeanour of the woman we were speaking with changed. She looked Kez up and down and proclaimed that girls cannot do pruning work as it is too physical. Something about the poor delicate dears not being able to cope with a bit of rain and manual labour. Sam had to literally push a raging Kez back out onto the street. At around 5’7” and 60kg, Kez clearly isn’t the largest of human beings. However, the fact that she possesses a uterus apparently makes her unsuitable in the eyes of this particular agency. We decided to avoid all contact with such a discriminating place, and set about finding work directly with the local vineyards.
The Direct Route
Having ruled out the agencies, we decided to contact the vineyards directly to see if any of them were looking for pruners. Yep, you read that correctly. We emailed each and every vineyard in the Margaret River region directly. There are hundreds. However, lo and behold, we got mail! Within the week, we had two vineyards ask us in for a casual interview. After visiting both, we settled on the family-run Ashbrook Estate. They were the nicest, most genuine people and we really landed on our feet with them – on Fridays we had a longer morning break with lots of scrummy homemade cakes!
After chatting to our fellow pruners, it turns out that they all either emailed directly or physically went in to each winery. Therefore, it’s safe to say that if you want the better jobs (i.e. the hourly paid ones), you have to be prepared to put in the legwork. Agencies are popular because they are easier to get jobs with (apart from if you are a girl), but often that means suffering when it comes to wages.
Are you looking to find vineyards who employ directly? We’ve put together a super-handy spreadsheet of all the vineyards listed on the Margaret River tourism website, with all of their contact details! Just click here to view it, and good luck!
What to Expect as a Pruner
Let’s keep this simple:
- You will get wet
- Your body will ache in places you never knew it could
- You will see vines and canes in your sleep
- It will be all you talk about
- You will learn more about winemaking than you thought you would
- You will become a wine snob
Vine pruning takes place in winter. Ahh, winter in Australia can’t be that bad, right? Not as bad as the U.K.! Well, that’s both true and false. Granted, it isn’t minus temperatures and your hands are unlikely to lose all feeling from the cold. The coldest it got was 8C one morning, and by 9am it was sunny and we’d shed all our warm layers. But it does rain. The showers are heavy but relatively brief, however cheap ‘water-resistant’ gear will not cut it. You will need heavy-duty wet weather kit, like this sexy jacket and these waterproof trousers. The more fluorescent and unattractive, the better. And wellies. Buy wellies, like these ones.
Kez almost cried one day because the pain in Kez’s hands and arms was so bad. She would also wake up in the night with seized up fingers. Sam’s back would ache from continually ducking down and around the trees. After taking Cod Liver Oil supplements this seemed to stop. Our strength increased rapidly, and after a couple of weeks, we were easily cutting through thick vine trees with manual loppers. Be prepared for a few weeks of beginners pain, and then you’ll be laughing.
We loved our jobs. Being able to spend all day outside chatting rubbish with each other was exactly what we were after. Ashbrook was a lovely place to work, and we felt more cared about and valued than we had at some of our previous office jobs in the U.K. In our eyes, it was totally worth the extra work to get a decent, hourly paid job.
For a great overview of Western Australia and the Margaret River region, get hold of a copy of Lonely Planet’s West Coast Australia travel guide. Our copy was so dog-eared and well thumbed by the time we left!
Where to stay in Margaret River
Margaret River Backpackers – centrally located and owned by YHA, this is a popular option for incoming pruners. They also run a bus service to the beach so you can relax on your days off.
Margaret River Lodge Backpackers – the original backpackers in Margs, you can choose from dorm rooms right up to ensuite rooms.
Bridgefield Guest House – a little more premium, this one is located at the bottom of town right above an incredible Italian restaurant.
Adamsons Riverside Accommodation – again located at the bottom of town, this accommodation is close to The Brewhouse pub and a gin distillery – both of which we loved.
Margaret River Tourist Park – if you’re really short on cash, or just need a bit more time before committing to a room, you can pitch up at the tourist park. There are also cabins if that’s more your style.
Have you worked as a vine pruner? Do you have any other tips? Or maybe you’ve experienced agencies differently than we did? Let us know!