Three Auckland restaurants to temporarily shut due to understaffing

1:37 pm on 6 July 2021

Three Auckland restaurants will be closed for two weeks because they do not have the staff they need to cope with the school holidays.

Kitchen staff in Cassia Restaurant on Fort Lane, Auckland City.

Kitchen staff in Cassia Restaurant on Fort Lane, Auckland City. Photo: RNZ/ Brad White

Restaurateurs Sid and Chand Sahrawat, who own Cassia, Sidart and the French Cafe, said the closures would cost them about $300,000 in takings but they have no choice.

The couple and their businesses will today join restaurants across the country in switching off their lights for two minutes at either 11.30am or 7pm today, as a way to bring attention to the industry's staffing crisis.

Chand Sahrawat said they needed about 65 people to run the businesses but because of immigration and rules they were down to 50 employees.

She told Morning Report their staff were mentally and physically drained trying to keep the doors open and it had been impossible to find replacements.

"We've been trying to get staff and hire locals and we've managed to some degree but not enough to be able to continue working and give staff rotating wheels, using up their annual leave, and our staff are tired.

"We need to put our Kiwi staff and staff who have worked with us over the past year first, and give them some time off so they can rest and recuperate."

She said the vacant roles they wanted to fill were across the board, from waiters, to wine and food matchers, and chefs.

The industry is calling for urgent visa extensions, border exemptions for critical workers, and extended working hours for student visas.

"You find someone and then someone else has to leave because their visa is running out or they have some uncertainty around working holiday visa and they only got renewed towards the end of their visas," Sahrawat said.

"Some of our staff have left and gone back to Europe."

She said the issue was not about wages but simply finding enough staff, or keeping good people.

"Locals are not applying. To get a migrant staff to get a visa at the moment is $27 an hour. So I definitely don't think paying people is the issue.

"And sure other hospitality businesses and other industries, we need to pay more, but that will mean we need to charge more or the government needs to come around and talk to us and find solutions on how we can attract Kiwis."

Sahrawat said migrant workers needed certainty that they could apply for residency in the future.

She said they were grateful for the government's actions in cracking down on the Covid-19 pandemic early to enable them to open now, but they needed to keep migrant workers.

"That's what other countries are doing. Canada, Australia are trying to keep workers onshore whereas our government is trying to spook them by saying we will only open for rich investors in the future.

"So the staff we have here who have been working with us for five years, highly skilled chefs for example, are like 'well maybe we should go to Canada'.

"We've got high rents as well, being in CBDs or in places where we can get the business.

"Whether it be talking to the government and getting some support from them or charging people more, that's going to become the reality."

She said she had written an open letter about their struggles to the prime minister in May.

"I wrote to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern about six weeks back, my letter has not even been acknowledged and she has never reached out. She's been in our restaurant ... after that and dined, so seen us struggling on one of the busiest nights of the year and not even acknowledged that there is a real crisis," she said.

"All we want is to find a solution together to help Kiwis and migrants."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern disputed Sahrawat's assertion that she had been in the restaurant since then and seen their struggles.

"I don't believe I have dined there recently but I am aware of the issues from a number of members of the hospitality sector," Ardern said.

"Putting that aside I am aware of those issues and we as a Cabinet have discussed what can we do in the face of what are areas of very genuine need.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Photo: RNZ / Russell Palmer

"We know there's a lot of pressure, we're in a situation where it's hard to bring in labour and also many are saying they're hard to find domestically so I hear that.

She said the government had already extended visas for people who are untrained and the government was again considering the possibility.

"Alongside continuing to encourage sectors to try and access and train New Zealand's domestic workforce, at the same time we acknowledge in some areas they have done a lot of work and are still struggling so we'll have more to say on that in the not too distant future."

The prime minister's office said she had never been to French Cafe but did go to Cassia a few weeks ago, and while the office did not receive a letter from the owner, they were aware of the open letter.

National Party leader Judith Collins said the government needed to permit more workers into the country.

"It's actually almost criminal for the government not to be allowing skilled workforce to come into New Zealand through those MIQ facilities when we've got 2000 beds vacant ... they're killing off whole chunks of our industry now," she said.

In a statement, ACT Party immigration spokesperson Dr James McDowall said the party planned to turn its own lights off in solidarity with the hospitality industry.

"Thanks to the government's inaction on immigration, business owners can't get the workers they need, some have said this could be the final nail in the coffin for their businesses.

"ACT is the most pro-immigration party in Parliament. The government's attitude is that businesses should just hire Kiwis, but we know that's not realistic."

In a statement, Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said the government was aware of challenges across many sectors but measures to protect New Zealand's borders had kept the country safe from community spread of the virus.

"Last month, we further extended around 10,000 Working Holiday and Supplementary Seasonal work visas -which were due to expire between 21 June 2021 and 31 December 2021 - for another six months to help manage ongoing labour shortages while New Zealand's Covid-19 border restrictions remain in place," he said.

"Under the Immigration Act, the Minister cannot extend these temporary visas for longer than six months at a time."

"We also gave open work rights to Supplementary Seasonal Employer work scheme visa holders, allowing them to work in any sector, including hospitality."

He said the changes provided employers with continued access to the offshore workforce, and while the government did not extend essential skills visas last month, the duration of essential skills visas for jobs paid below the median wage will be increased from six to 12 months to align with pre-Covid-19 settings.

He noted the minimum criteria for being able to hire a migrant worker were proof that there were no New Zealanders available to do the work, and provide 30 hours per week at the minimum wage.

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