Hospitality's acute shortage of workers made headlines again this week after one minister told operators to up their game on pay and conditions. While bosses told media they can’t find workers no matter what they offer, the media couldn't seem to find any workers for their coverage - or useful facts for the audience about what’s on offer.
“When we couldn’t use foreign labour, all of a sudden we realised we've been insufficiently investing in Kiwi talent for a long time,” economist Cameron Bagrie told the Sunday Star Times last weekend under the headline ‘Is Aotearoa Broken?’
Labour shortages are certainly a real problem in a range of industries right now - especially hospitality, which has been hard hit by the pandemic.
Previously the industry’s representatives made headlines urging the government to drop Covid-19 alert levels and pushing for borders to open.
At the time, hospitality workers’ warnings that staff would find it hard to stay healthy after ‘opening up’ - and that they might even walk away from the industry altogether - were mostly unreported.
But that is now playing out.
Under the headline Winter illness brings hospo 'to its knees' Restaurant Association chief executive Marisa Bidois told Stuff last week its members faced workforce shortages across the board.
Then Immigration Minister Michael Wood said businesses offering low-wage jobs with insecure conditions should work harder to become more attractive places to work.
The reaction from hospitality bosses was immediate - and widely reported.
Lou McDowell of Flame Bar and Grill in Queenstown told RNZ’s Checkpoint it paid $27 per hour for entry-level service roles and she had been spending about $2000 a month on Seek to find staff.
“You could offer someone $50 an hour and they're still not going to turn up for a job interview because there's no one to turn up," she said.
Having heard that, hospitality workers group Raise the Bar pointed to Seek ads for Flame roles offering wages for more senior staff that were barely any better, such as a duty manager with two years' experience for $27 an hour.
Two other restaurant owners told Checkpoint they paid their staff well and took care not to overwork them.
The same day Matt McLaughlin - who owns three bars in Wellington and is the regional representative for Hospitality NZ - told The AM Show that before Covid-19 more than 50 per cent of his workers were foreigners without New Zealand residency.
But wages were now going up, he said, while also insisting fun and flexibility were things workers valued too.
Meanwhile on Newstalk ZB, Wellington Mornings host Nick Mills, who also owns bars in Wellington, accused critics of “gaslighting” hospitality.
He also claimed wages were rising fast, but only in recent times.
“It might have taken Covid to shake it up. And it might have taken a scare of not being able to find staff to shake it up. But I now see staff getting very well rewarded for doing a day's job," he said.
“I don't think has anyone employed by us - and I could be wrong and you can call me if I'm wrong - but I don't think there's anyone under $25 an hour - and it goes up from there,” he told ZB listeners.
It would have been great if someone on the payroll had called in because again - in over an hour of radio devoted to the issue - we didn’t hear from anyone actually employed in hospitality.
While hospitality bosses gave anecdotal accounts of rising wages to the media, workers were absent in almost every news story.
But industry-wide rates and trends are readily available in the Restaurant Association's remuneration survey.
The summary in this year’s one shows wages up 8.2 percent on average across all roles, following a 6 percent rise in 2020-2021. The rates paid for specialist roles rose by more than that.
But the average hourly rate is listed as $24.43 - less than three dollars above the minimum wage.
The report noted huge cost pressures and low profit margins made wage rises hard to pay right now. And revealing comments from operators said they wanted to reward staff but they couldn’t because Covid-19 restrictions had hammered their profitability and productivity.
But the same survey also had a message similar to the one the immigration minister had delivered.
“We desperately need more people entering the industry (as well as retaining those already working with us). This means focusing on some long-term changes that tackle the perception challenges of the industry and highlight our workplaces as the type of businesses that people want to work in.”
In April an AUT report called Voices From The Front Line also concluded “long-standing but steadily worsening labour market problems” in the sector had accompanied its “rapid growth and economic success”.
Media highlighting hospitality’s acute recruitment problems didn’t ask whether the industry did enough then to make itself a better option for the workers it can’t find now - while waiting for the immigration tap to turn back on.