Melbourne app iBackpacker aims to help backpackers find safe employment

- February 19, 2016 5 MIN READ

Movies inform us of what happens to vulnerable backpackers and young teenagers travelling around the country side. From the gruesome images of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Hostel, they usually face a sad and painful end. Nightmares are made from our very own true stories of Ivan Milat and our hearts go out to all those travellers who crossed his path. Being a backpacker has frightful connotations, especially in Australia.

When Canadian Shane Martz came to Australia as a backpacker two and a half years ago, he found that one of the biggest hardships faced by those coming to our great southern land for an extended period of time was getting a job.

“There’s so many backpackers that come to Australia every year, about 250,000, and there’s only a small selection of employers that actually want to employ them,” said Martz.

There have been numerous reports on backpacker exploitation in Australia lately, highlighted by the ABC Four Corners program in May last year. The program told the story of backpacker Anne Katiren from the Netherlands, who spoke of her hardships.

“I moved back to Cairns for two months, where I was systematically rejected jobs, and some employers would offer me sexual jobs when not asked for it,” Katiren told Four Corners. “But, things got much worse when I went to Brisbane – based on a lie. A company told me that they had a job for me but when I arrived in Brisbane suddenly they didn’t pick up the phone anymore or replied to their emails. When I reported all these messages and phone numbers to the police in Fortitude Valley in Brisbane, they told me it was my own fault for having my CV online and for looking like I do, and dismissed me.”

While working on a farm in Gatton in Queensland, Katiren lived in a single cabin with five other backpackers. She said the pay was poor and there was no way to buy food, pay for rent, or connect to the internet.

“I met people who had been stuck there for three weeks and in those three weeks they had only worked three days, and had only earned $130,” Katiren said. “They couldn’t afford their rent, they couldn’t afford food, and they especially couldn’t earn their second year visa (luckily I already have mine) it was a huge criminal scam that was exploiting people.”

Journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna reporting for Four Corners said that some backpackers face constant tirades of verbal and physical abuse, along with indecent assault. “I heard first-hand accounts from women who were told to perform sexual favours to get their visas signed off,” said Meldrum-Hanna. “We heard stories of people working 22 hours a day and getting one hour’s sleep.”

With poor accountability in the backpacker employment system, many stories like these go unnoticed. With the constant change of the whereabouts of backpackers it becomes impossible to track where they’re going, who they’re working for, and sadly, who abused them.

Martz experienced first hand the amount of painstaking hours it took to search and apply for jobs on Gumtree. He saw the whole process as frustrating and inefficient, placing a dark cloud over what he thought he would be an experience of a lifetime.

“So I had the idea to create a jobs network just for backpackers so that when backpackers go on there they’re not just wasting their time applying for jobs, they’re actually applying for jobs where people want them,” said Martz.

Melbourne app iBackpacker was launched last year in March to put an end to people taking advantage of vulnerable backpackers, and make people accountable. The platform seeks to create transparency for backpackers and support their current user base of 17,000 working in Australia.

Before the app was created the only public knowledge of abuse and ‘no go zones’ was a shared spreadsheet that failed to inform and warn of a range of threats to tourists.

Since the first launch of iBackpacker the app has been redesigned with improved features to prevent mistreatment and abuse of tourists. iBackpacker is a simple jobs board for tourists in Australia with its main aim being transparency for users. Backpackers sign up for iBackpacker and provide details about themselves where they can filter location, job type, preference and category. The app lists all the relevant jobs based on the user’s details and requests.

On the other side employers can filter backpackers by what types of job they’re looking for, spoken languages, and location. When employees fill out their own preferences they can see a backpackers interests, bio, and skills. They keep track of who they have hired, while backpackers can keep a log of who they have worked for. iBackpacker adds a much needed infrastructure to an overlooked employment sector in Australia.

“We’ve had a lot of good feedback from the user experience side and that the employers are getting a lot more value than when they’re using Gumtree,” said Martz.

“From the backpackers side as well, the fact that it’s mobile friendly, it’s built for them to use with their phone so they’re having a really easy time using that on the go.”

The app brings in a rate and review system to help employers build a good reputation, enabling them to keep hiring and finding work. Backpackers can leave comments and rate the profiles of their employers, confirming if they received suitable working conditions or warning fellow tourists to be aware of certain employers and locations.

Currently the most popular platform for backpackers to conduct a job search is Gumtree, however previous experiences of job searches and offers has proved that it is a system which lacks certain crucial features like profiling, rating, and reviewing of employers. There are also a few backpacker websites like Australian Backpackers and Backpacker Job Board Australia. However both these sites are strictly web platforms with no mobile app service, while Martz acknowledged that most backpackers travel with their phones and has made the app compatible for iOS and Android users, which are available for free download.

The new platform is a more comprehensive job board and backpacker network. Martz reaches Australian backpackers through mobile ads, Facebook, Google and hostels.

“One thing that’s great about marketing towards backpackers is backpackers are always around other backpackers so if we just go to the hostels and we put up some flyers and hand out some cards the backpackers are there and by providing them with great user experience we’ve actually seen a lot of word of mouth,” explained Martz.

Since launch iBackpacker has received funding from angel investors and aims to open up a Series A round in the next few months to raise $500,000. With Martz still not sure on a monetisation strategy, the funding will allow Martz to bring on new team members and to exponentially grow the app’s coverage.

“We’ve gone pretty minimal on the marketing budget but we’ve seen a massive amount of traction in our first year so now we’re kind of ready to amp it up over the next 12 months,” said Martz.

In the coming months iBackpacker aims to partner up with some travel providers in Australia to offer users more value. Martz is looking to strike up deals with hostel providers and travel and surf companies to extend the app’s reach across regional and rural Australia.

Image: Shane Martz. Source: Supplied