7 Aug 2020

Restaurants, bars call for Kiwi workers as borders stay shut

From Checkpoint, 6:08 pm on 7 August 2020

The Restaurants Association says now is the time for New Zealanders to stop looking down on hospitality and give it a go, although economists are warning the government that wage subsidies cannot be a long term solution.

Mandy Lusk owns Vivace on Fort Street in Auckland's once busy downtown streets, having moved from High Street to chase the tourist market, which has dried up due to Covid-19.

Gone too are many of the casual but once committed corporate clients who are now working from home.

"The day the first new person came in through the border and we got Covid - one positive case - we lost three functions for that week. 

"One of the saddest things is all the redundancy drinks we're doing at our bar ... I think a certain amount of that is also firms taking an opportunity perhaps, because they see things getting worse. Even if they're not hurting yet they're certainly looking at downsizing their premises and staffing." 

She's having to advertise four positions - a sous chef, senior sous chef, chef de partie, and a kitchen hand - because her current chefs and kitchen hand have visa issues.

"We don't have a kitchen hand and we can't find one. The chefs, we have got people, we're struggling to work with immigration to be able to keep them but they're all working up to about 70 hours a week to cover for that poor girl who's sitting there unable to work waiting for a visa that should have been processesd weeks ago.

"I think we're portrayed quite badly in the media as poorly paid, exploiting immigrants and things like that. 

"None of our staff are on minimum wage and they get meals with every shift, even for a dishwasher ... even our kitchen hands would be on around a $50,000 a year salary working full time, but we've had not one single New Zealander apply for a kitchenhand role in several years." 

Cooks in a restaurant kitchen.

Cooks in a restaurant kitchen. Photo: 123rf

Chief executive Marisa Bidois said hospitality needed a PR boost.

"We also need to look at how we're selling our industry - so, when we do eventually reopen our borders, when people come to visit New Zealand they do want to be served by New Zealanders as well." 

She says the industry has stuggled long before the pandemic, but 78 percent of its members still cannot fill positions - and many of them are for well paid work.

"Prior to Covid we were experiencing a severe skill shortage in our industy and now as we're working through Covid times that severity has come down slightly but it's still there and certainly concentrated in the most senior positions." 

She said she wanted the government to extend the wage subsidy.

"We are asking for another six weeks of wage subsidy and we've had two lots of wage subsidy coming through now and we think the time is right to be considering a third." 

Economist Julian Wood - a researcher for the Maxim Institute - disagreed, saying the wage subsidy must have a limit.

"We've got this abrupt ending to the wage subsidy and I think that's actually appropriate - we don't want to lock people into the past. 

"All the evidence from overseas basically says wage subsidies really can be helpful at the front end of a recession but if you continue with them they can actually be a harmful thing because they slow down the person's ability to say 'actually, I need to move into something new'." 

He says hiring subsidies are the better way to go - paying employers to take on untrained staff and skill them up for a long term position.

"There's just a need to help people get over that initial shock of trying something new." 

There is a political divide over the best solution.

Labour says it is investing in free trades training and giving some money to cover apprenticeships, while National wants to pay employers an effective hiring subsidy - but only for the creation of new jobs.

Mandy said neither was really going to help her, as she needed people who could come in and immediately learn on the job - not new jobs, but the ones she was desperately trying to fill.

"If there was a subsidy there you've got years of experience that we can train people on the job and that would definitely be worth it. 

"I think it's still so uncertain out there, I think people would really struggle to think about expanding at the moment. We could certainly do with an apprentice in our bar area but yeah I think that's just impossible to find."