Covid-19 coronavirus: Bill Ralston – worker shortages are choking NZ businesses, restaurants

OPINION:

It is good to hear directly from people I write about. Recently, I wrote about the Government’s stubborn insistence on restricting the number of Covid-19-free Pacific Island Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers and its damaging effect on the fruit-picking industry.

It drew a grumpy text from Economic and Regional Development Minister Stuart Nash, who wrote, “What a terrible article!! BTW, I could answer every question – and your article was one of the more poorly rationalised I have read from you when normally they are well thought thru pieces …” He went on to say he was happy to discuss any of the matters raised, before signing off, presumably through slightly gritted teeth, “Best regards, Stuart.”

Sorry, Stuart, you are going to have to answer a lot more questions from a lot more businesses that are struggling, and not just those questions about RSE workers. Restaurateurs around the country are choking through lack of staff. They argue that, pre-Covid, migrant workers, many from Europe, made up about 25 per cent of their staff, but now it’s perhaps 15 per cent.

This figure is set to fall further as existing migrant staff on working holiday visas face them expiring next month and Immigration New Zealand has told them there is no information on the likelihood of further extensions. They are packing their bags as a result.

Restaurant owners and chefs are complaining that they just cannot recruit enough local labour to do the work and they are being forced to reduce opening hours and, in some cases, either close for extended periods or close permanently.

Worse still, the opening of the travel bubble with Australia is sucking staff out of our hospitality sector and into better-paid roles across the Tasman, further reducing the number available to work in kitchens and on cafe floors here.

It is no use arguing the hospitality sector should increase wages to hold staff because, the sector says, its margins are already slim – between 5-10 per cent, not enough to sustain a hefty pay increase.

With our unemployment rate at a puny 4.7 per cent, it’s likely those on the benefit are mostly the long-term unemployed. Many of those unemployed who actually want to work won’t be interested in the hospitality sector. Instead, they will be seeking employment in such areas as the trades and primary industries.

The tom-toms are beating strongly in the hospitality industry, rallying owners to mount a loud and angry campaign to convince the Government to retain migrant workers already here, rather than forcing them out by not renewing their visas, and offer subsidies for government training schemes to recruit more local workers.

A likely result will be that many of those in the sector will make their point to the public and the Government by collectively repeatedly shutting restaurant doors for a day or two around the country. Most restaurants, which are generally heavily understaffed and overworked because of the problem, will breathe a sigh of relief at the break they receive.

Now, Stuart, I know you people in Parliament have Bellamys and, therefore, are unlikely to go hungry, but the rest of us don’t have that advantage. You might soon experience a bit of blowback from peckish patrons locked out of their favourite eating places.

The solution is fairly simple, mate. Renew the work visas of those workers who are already here and pump some cash into training. It will certainly help.

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