Teuila Fuatai: Hospo labour logic no longer palatable

OPINION:

It’s become one of the louder post-Covid debates specifically linked to our love for eating out. That is, how to staff an industry which is heavily reliant on migrant workers when that previously generous labour source no longer exists.

As we’ve heard, it’s pushing some restaurants to the brink.

The owners of popular Auckland restaurants Cassia, Sidart and Sid at the French Cafe even said last week they would be closed for the school holidays to give overworked staff a much-needed break.

“Business has definitely improved, but we are now faced with the new predicament of not having people to meet the demand,” co-owner Chand Sahrawat said.

Seems extreme, right?

But then again, if your staff are being worked to the bone because they’re covering positions that haven’t been filled, something has to give.

Restaurant owners like Sahrawat have been vocal about the dire need to fix the labour shortage. Summarised by industry groups like the Restaurant Association, they believe the best and only immediate fix is to extend visas for those already in the country and working. A clear pathway to bring in migrant workers who can fill positions which simply aren’t being taken up by locals must also be secured.

Portrayed as a win for both migrant workers and restaurants, the arrangement benefits those who want to live in New Zealand, as well as the businesses who have a place for them.

It also means everyone else involved with the restaurant industry — from consumers to their suppliers — can continue to enjoy its fruits.

To be honest, it’s an argument that seemed relatively safe before 2020. But now, the world looks a little different, and the significant flaws in New Zealand’s migrant worker policies are no longer being papered over by a seemingly endless supply of overseas workers. Instead, we’re being asked to consider why locals tend not to apply, and then strive in roles that overseas workers do in the hospitality industry.

Second, but no less important, is how we’ve managed to develop a booming industry which seems so reliant on having a workforce tied to conditions and pay rates many who grew up in New Zealand would consider unsustainable.

Are locals actually reluctant to work compared to their migrant counterparts?

Or are migrant workers majorly short-changed when they’re promised a life in New Zealand? Closely linked to this is how a more obliging and overwhelmingly overseas workforce often impacts on wider industry standards around pay expectations and conditions.

Further, what about those who are working holiday visa holders and international students? Isn’t it a good thing to they can pick up jobs on short-notice when they need money?

So far, we’ve seen a range of answers which touch on a variety factors — including New Zealand’s low unemployment rate, labour and visa arrangements which enable exploitation, and the relatively tight margins many restaurants and cafes operate on.

The argument put forward by some is that better pay and conditions would automatically make hospitality jobs more appealing to locals.

It would also improve standards in the industry overall, which would benefit all workers, including visa holders.

Others are adamant that conditions and pay in the industry are as good as it gets, and without a serious injection of labour willing to do the work, hospitality businesses will start to close.

I’d argue it doesn’t need to be one or the other.

Both scenarios present a way forward — which will undoubtedly be hard to swallow for some businesses.

Overall, it isn’t fair that New Zealand has built a booming restaurant industry which a significant number of locals won’t work in because of the demanding conditions and poor remuneration. Saying that, it’s also on us to fix the problem we’ve created.

Unfortunately, that may mean paying more for a meal out, or even the closure of certain eateries because the pandemic has forcibly halted a business model that should never have flourished.

Either way, it’s a step in the right direction.

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