If you’re heading out to a restaurant this weekend or even spending a few hours at the pub, you may notice something missing from the pre-pandemic era — foreign workers.
- Restaurants that laid off workers are now struggling to find staff
- It comes despite a national unemployment rate of 6.9 per cent in September
- Food writer Dani Valent says March will be a “crunch time” for the industry
As the hospitality industry tries to rebound from COVID-19 — no more so than in Victoria, where restaurants were closed for months — venues around the country are facing a staff shortage crisis.
Wes Lambert, the chief executive of Restaurant and Catering Australia, said there was only one skilled applicant for every 10 jobs advertised because of the loss of working holiday and visa workers.
Those workers were the backbone of many restaurants around the country but returned home after finding themselves ineligible for the Federal Government’s Jobkeeper or Jobseeker payments.
Industry representatives say the mass exodus, coupled with local staff moving into other lines of work, has left venues with a major headache.
“In the hospitality industry we have known for a decade that the enrolments into VET and TAFE for commercial cookery and front-of-house hospitality management have been in decline, and this has actually helped bring that problem to the surface,” Mr Lambert said.
‘We need customer-facing roles’
For Melbourne pub owner Nick Allardice, the staff shortage means reduced trading hours at his venues in Port Melbourne and Ringwood, in the outer eastern suburbs.
Mr Allardice’s business, the Bon Vivant Group, made casual staff redundant in March at the start of the pandemic, and he said a quarter of his permanent workers who were receiving JobKeeper payments quit the industry altogether.
He said he normally received up to 60 applicants for advertised positions, but his hiring drive after local lockdown restrictions were eased has not been so successful.
Mr Allardice said it was difficult to attract management staff, due to their fears of being made ineligible for JobKeeper if they left their current employer.
When it came to lower-tier jobs, such as waitstaff and bartenders, he said they had received “no applicants”.
It is a similar story for Paul Stafford, who runs food truck business Bigger than Texas in Frankston on the Mornington Peninsula.
“I’ve never been in this situation in Melbourne, and I’ve been trading in hospitality for a long time. It’s very challenging at the moment,” he said.
Hospitality ‘stigma’ may be deterring workers
In September, the national unemployment rate sat at 6.9 per cent, and more than 11 per cent of Australians were categorised as under-employed.
Theoretically, there should be people to fill the advertised jobs. But Mr Allardice believes there is a “negative stigma” associated with around the hospitality industry, over fears of low pay and gruelling hours.
There have been widespread reports over the years of wage theft and underpayment in the industry, but Mr Allardice insisted most employers did the right thing by their staff.
He said inexperienced staff with no qualifications could expect to earn a minimum of about $25-an-hour, with extra penalty rates for irregular hours and weekend work.
“People from overseas don’t have the stigma around hospitality. Generally, the feedback we get is the pay rates in Australia for hospitality are fantastic,” he said.
Food writer Dani Valent said the staff shortage was “entirely predictable”, due to visa holders “being told to go home if they couldn’t support themselves in Australia”.
“March is going to be a crunch time when JobSeeker reduces and JobKeeper dries up. We’ll certainly see some businesses fail and we may see more people coming into the marketplace.”
Closure of one kitchen is cause for celebration
Celebrated Melbourne restaurant Attica set up a weekly soup kitchen for hospitality workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic.
With dine-in customers returning this weekend, staff at the three-hatted restaurant are now back at work, spelling the end of the soup kitchen.
The kitchen was a lifeline for skilled visa workers like Michael Ng, a qualified chef who was stood down in March and received no government support.
“I pay taxes just like everyone else and I’m lawful and live well. I have no idea why the Government left me behind,” Mr Ng said.
Ms Valent, who has been running the soup kitchen with owner Ben Shewry, said hanging up the ladle was bittersweet.
“The success of this program is that nobody needs to come. But still, we’ve made such good friends, it’s been such a big community effort and I’ve got lots of good soup ideas out of it,” she said.