There was a collective sense of disbelief across the hospitality sector when the Turnbull Government announced it would be scrapping the 457 visa and replacing it with two Temporary Skill Shortage visas – a short term, two-year visa for some professions and a medium and long term four-year visa for others.
To say that the hospitality sector relies on overseas workers is not hyperbole, it is simply fact. That applies to high end restaurants in the larger cities through to regional fast food outlets. The 457 was already viewed as an expensive and cumbersome piece of bureaucracy by many in the industry. However, many are now looking back at the old visas with a degree of nostalgia as the reality of a new set of challenges emerges seemingly out of nowhere that hinders the most basic function of keeping their business going – that of staffing it. There is a recognised skills shortage in Australia across many industries, but particularly in the hospitality sector with Restaurant and Catering Australia forecasting a shortfall of 28,000 cooks by 2020.
Data from the federal government shows cooks are the largest occupation class in the 457 visa program, according to data from the Federal Government, with chefs and cafe or restaurant managers included in the top 15 occupations.
A silver lining in the cloud is very few hospitality-related jobs were among the professions to be cut from eligibility with the new visas. However, chefs now need three years’ experience instead of two to make the cut. Chefs were included on the medium to long-term list, but a large number of cafe or restaurant managers, cooks, bakers and pastry cooks are now on the short-term list.
The problem for many is that with permanent residency applications now seemingly only applying after three years, it will close the pathway for anyone on the two-year visa. That uncertainty is at the core of many people’s anxiety. And it’s not as if those coming from overseas are taking jobs away from locals as Vicky Wilde, one half of the highly successful Sepia restaurant, says.
“Ten years ago there wasn’t a 457 in our kitchen, and now we couldn’t survive without them,” she says. “We worked out that all of the jobs that we were advertising, the percentage of Australian applicants was 3 per cent. It would cost me less to employ Australians but they are just not there.”
The Merivale Group employs around 300 people through the 457 visa process, with CEO Justin Hemmes saying it is an invaluable pathway to “bring in excellent talent from overseas to teach our people how to do things better”.
“To take that tool away from us is so counter-productive. I can’t understand the concept behind it,” he says. “We want to encourage talented people to come here. My father was one, he couldn’t speak English when he came here. I even felt the old 457 process was too difficult and now we are going backwards.”
As Hemmes points out, bringing in overseas talent fosters new ventures which ultimately create new jobs for locals. “They actually create employment,” he says. “At Fred’s, because we brought Danielle [Alvarez] in on a 457, we are actually creating employment by sponsoring these people.”
The same could be said of The Lucas Group, which has just opened Japanese restaurant Kisume in Melbourne.
“Quite frankly we wouldn’t have been able to open the Japanese restaurant withoutbringing in highly skilled Japanese chefs,” says Chris Lucas, CEO and founder of The Lucas Group. They also brought over sommelier Jonathan Ross, who used to work at New York’s Eleven Madison Park, and who is arguably one of the best sommeliers in the US, to join the Group.
“Since he joined us about a month ago we have had about 40 applications from young Australian people, sommeliers who want to learn the trade, stimulated by the idea that a great talent is coming to Melbourne,” says Lucas. “It benefits Australia to be able to bring internationally renowned people who have a global perspective, as it raises the bar for everyone in this country. It’s the same for our Japanese chefs.”
The irony of the whole situation is the Federal Government has already invested so much through Tourism Australia, the agency tasked with attracting overseas visitors to Australia, in talking up our thriving food and wine scene. The Restaurant Australia campaign has been highly successful, but is now in danger of being a taken for granted, as Neil Perry, probably our most recognisable chef and key player in the Restaurant Australia campaign, is all to keenly aware.
“The most important thing for the Government to recognise is that we would employ Australians every single time if we could,” says Perry, who helps oversee Rockpool Dining Group, Australia’s largest hospitality company.
“You have a situation where unemployment is at the lowest it has been, our industry is growing exponentially, tourism is growing massively and our taxpayer dollars are going into Tourism Australia to promote that, and yet we have this situation where all of a sudden we are throwing up borders,” he says.
“For the Government to say that service isn’t a skill and then to invite people from all around the world to come to Australia to have a great restaurant experience, of which service is at least 50 per cent, I want to beat my head against a brick wall. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Rockpool Dining Group employs around 3500 people with 30 per cent on 457s, 417 or student visas.
“You wouldn’t get a kitchen hand in Australia if you weren’t working on a student visa program,” says Perry. “That 30 per cent of people allow 70 per cent of Australians to get a job. We are not employing people from overseas because it is easy or love slave labour as the newspapers would have you believe, but the reality is we would be employing an Australian every time.”
A key problem is the lack of consultation and the uncertainty that still hangs over many of the implied changes. While many hospitality jobs are on the long-term and short-term lists there is no guarantee they will be there in 12 months when the list gets reviewed by the Department of Employment. The short term list is reviewed every six months.
Another issue is the cost. The previous 457 visas were not a cheap option for employers, but that cost is set to rise dramatically next March under the new system which is introducing a new training levy which is going to be a requirement for anyone sponsoring new nominations. A double whammy is you will have to pay the levy upfront, with no recourse for a refund or partial refund if things don’t go to plan and your employee leaves before their period is up. The Federal Government claims the levy is to be used to train up 300,000 new apprentices, a figure so ludicrous it was probably conjoured up with a curled little finger to the lips.
The problem is not that we don’t have enough talented chefs, we are blessed with great culinary talent. It’s that we don’t have enough workers willing to do the ‘foot soldier’ work. The TV cooking shows raised a whole generation of youngsters to believe they could be kitchen rock stars and simply are not interested in being an extra in someone else’s dream. And if they don’t want to do it, and we are no longer an attractive option for those overseas workers willing to the work, then who is going to fill those positions? Maybe if a few of the restaurants that pollies like going to so much to broker their deals closed they might wake up to the fact that they could well be killing the overseas geese that help create that golden egg.