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November 18, 2021

Labour in Vain

The Australian hospitality industry is facing an unprecedented worker shortage. How can it be fixed?

Words: Dani Valent
Images: Christina Simons

Satt Makkad-Bhoir opens her arms to embrace a regular customer. “I’m quite a hugger,” says Makkad-Bhoir, owner with her husband, Pratt Bhoir, of 3 Idiots, a modern Indian eatery in Richmond, Melbourne. “You walk in that door and it’s like you are coming to my house,” she says.

Family and staff at 3 Idiots in Richmond.

Much of their extended family is already in the restaurant, even before the doors open to customers. “We can’t find staff, so six of the nine people working here at the moment are family,” says Makkad-Bhoir, surveying the team. “This is Pratt’s cousin, Divya; my sister, Amarjeet; my brother-in-law, Ghruva; and another cousin, Aishwarya.” Most of them have full-time work elsewhere – in IT, retail, aged care – but build their nights and weekends around the restaurant.

“Ideally, I wouldn’t have all the family on deck,” says Makkad-Bhoir. “It can be harsh for a family member to hear they haven’t done something right. But at the same time, if I didn’t have them here now I would be devastated. We couldn’t open without them.”

Like most hospitality venues around Australia, 3 Idiots is constantly advertising for new staff members. “Not a single person has applied, except for one who doesn’t want to work weekends,” says Makkad-Bhoir, who is offering award wages and conditions. Pre-COVID, staffing was already challenging. But there was always an inflow of international students, a key part of the mix at 3 Idiots. The pandemic upended this.

When Australia locked down in March 2020, students and other workers on temporary visas were excluded from JobSeeker unemployment benefits and JobKeeper income support. In April 2020, Prime Minister Scott Morrison advised temporary visa holders to “go home” if they couldn’t find a way through the pandemic; many saw their Australian future evaporate and took his advice.

Satt Makkad-Bhoir embraces a regular customer at 3 Idiots.

“As a country, we should have taken care of them, not just because it’s the right thing to do but also because we need them,” says Makkad-Bhoir. She also lost a hard-won staff member in 2021 – the woman returned to India because her husband was unable to secure a flight back to Australia. “She’s 38,” says Makkad-Bhoir. “She wants to have a baby.”

According to the Department of Home Affairs, there were 667,306 fewer temporary visa holders in Australia at the end of March 2021 than at the end of 2019. Many of those departures account for the 100,000-person shortfall in the hospitality and tourism sector, identified by the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association (RCIA). The association is lobbying the federal government for a special COVID recovery visa to fill the hole. “It would allow vaccinated workers to come in and fill positions,” says RCIA Chief Executive Officer Wes Lambert. “If we expect businesses to thrive, we must have the workers for the recovery.”

The RCIA welcomed the relaxation of working-hour restrictions on international students, announced in May 2021. Students previously allowed to work just 40 hours per fortnight are now allowed to work longer in hospitality and tourism, at least temporarily. Soon after, the association also lobbied successfully to have chefs added to the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List, which means their sponsorship applications will shoot to the top of the pile. “It’s good but it’s not a complete fix,” says Lambert.

"What are the hospitality industry’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses and – importantly – how can they be fixed?"

Staff at Boosa café in Bentleigh.

Michael Bascetta is a co-founder of the Worksmith hospitality co-working hub and a co-owner of Melbourne restaurants Bar Liberty and Capitano. He also wants to see international workers return. “There are people who would love to come – or come back – to Australia,” he says. “We can create specialist work visas for chefs, front of house, sommeliers, bartenders ... With the right policy we would be able to bridge the jobs gap.”

Bascetta adds: “It was hard enough to find staff before COVID but now it’s close to impossible; so much so that our opportunity to rebuild and grow is hamstrung. We’ve put expansion on hold. We lose money because we can’t open for more hours and do more functions – we lost 15 per cent of potential bookings over summer. If you look at the way it’s affected the industry, you can see a flow-on impact for the whole nation.”

But an absent international workforce isn’t the whole story. Some visa workers who stayed in Australia have chosen work that offers better pay and conditions, or work that is ‘lockdown proof’ – such as in building or food retail. Hospitality also isn’t a career of choice for young Australians. Those who do enter the industry often move on: their bodies are battered by the physical nature of many roles, they want better work-life balance, they saw their children during lockdown and realised it was quite nice. So what are the hospitality industry’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and, importantly, how can they be fixed?

Marios in Fitzroy has a knack for holding onto employees: in their 40 years of operation, they have paid out numerous long service leaves. We asked some of Mario's longest-term employees why they stay in the same job, even while working in an industry that struggles with rapid turnover.

A Career of Choice

Australians tend not to view hospitality as a viable long-term career. An Australian Trade Commission Tourism and Hospitality Careers report from 2016 surveyed high school students and their parents. “For the majority of students, career opportunities in this sector were simply not on their radar,” the report reads. There was an awareness of short-term jobs in the industry – waiting tables while at uni, jobbing while backpacking – but not career pathways. “Few students with interaction with school counsellors could recall any discussion of tourism or hospitality,” says the report.      

Among surveyed parents, “the common perception was that while the tourism and hospitality sector offers plenty of entry-level jobs, it doesn’t appear to offer identifiable careers where hard work, training and dedication can be rewarded with promotion and advancement. Low pay, hard work and long hours were the key points of concern.” Prestige was also a factor. “For some of the higher performing students, parents would be trying to guide their children toward higher status [and] higher paying careers such as law and medicine.”

Staff at 3 idiots during the busy Saturday rush.

Are hospitality workers badly paid? The Restaurant Industry Award minimum for full-time cooks and chefs ranges from $775.40 per week ($40,320 annually) to $957.60 per week ($49,795 annually), depending on skills and experience, before adding penalty rates for night, weekend and holiday work. In comparison, retail ranges from $827.80 to $1,012.90; aged care from $821.40 to $997.70; and plumbers start at $812.10 and scale up to $1,031.30.      

And not all restaurant workers receive the legal rates. In recent years, a slew of news stories and Fair Work cases have sullied the industry’s reputation even as they’ve pushed restaurants towards workplace compliance. Cash work and unpaid hours have been reined in, but they’re still common.

Money isn’t the only thing that contributes to the industry’s lack of appeal. “I still get crap from my [tradesman] brothers about wearing an apron,” says veteran Brisbane-based chef Shannon Kellam, who owns six businesses and has been in the industry for almost 30 years. “There’s a stigma in Australian culture – you’re seen as a servant working unsociable hours, missing birthdays and family events. It makes it difficult to attract people to the industry.”

Lambert says, “We need to develop programs to ensure that students who may be suited for [hospitality] vocations are encouraged to go into them.” He believes the industry’s reputation is changing. “Many hospitality organisations are sensitive to working conditions, mental health, fair wages and compliance. It’s getting better every day.”

Bascetta also sees the need for getting more kids in on the ground floor. “Now is the time to start promoting hospitality as a great career choice,” he says. “But that’s a long burn. Talking to year 12 students now isn’t going to fill the gap quickly enough. I need workers now.”

Kitchen staff at Boosa café in Bentleigh.


Enrolments in Australian hospitality courses numbered 102,270 in 2019 but there were only 31,610 completions, according to the Australian Industry and Skills Committee. Those numbers have held steady for the past few years.

Sometimes students quit because they didn’t understand what they had signed up for. “You have your MasterChef phenomenon, where people think you can cook whatever you want – they don’t realise they need to learn the basics before they can fly,” says Simon Buchner, Education Manager in the hospitality, cookery, bakery and patisserie programs at Holmesglen TAFE in Melbourne.

Sometimes it’s more than a mismatch. Mexican-American student Robert Holguin came to Australia as a barista on a working holiday visa but decided to retrain as a chef. He switched to a student visa and signed up to a cookery course at a private college in Melbourne. It’s been profoundly underwhelming. “Teachers seem uninterested, I’m not learning anything, and students seem to be filling in time,” he says. “It feels like a scam that’s set up to collect course fees and give internationals access to a visa.”

Even in higher quality courses, there can be a discrepancy between what students are taught and what the industry wants. “We try to adapt our courses as much as we can,” says Buchner. “But there’s only a change in the training package every four or five years, and we don’t always hear what the industry wants.” Some modules are outdated. “In our cocktail unit, the students learn a Brandy Alexander – I haven’t served that since the 1980s,” Buchner adds.

“You work long, antisocial hours,” she says. “Your body aches so much you don’t do physical exercise. I was so tired I didn’t socialise. And you’re dealing with angry, entitled people all day.”

And not all employers value qualifications. The Tourism and Hospitality Careers report notes that many bosses are themselves untrained and “place less value on a formal qualification and more on industry experience, and consider it necessary for new entrants to also start from the bottom”.

Mario Maccarone in the office above the Marios restaurant in Fitzroy.


Hospitality can be a punishing industry. Anna Bailey is an international student and aspiring journalist who used to work in hospitality as a waiter, barista and manager. She’s not a fan. “You work long, antisocial hours,” she says. “Your body aches so much you don’t do physical exercise. I was so tired I didn’t socialise. And you’re dealing with angry, entitled people all day. I found it degrading.”

Bailey also witnessed workplace abuse and exploitation, particularly of overseas workers. “People would be told they’d get sponsorship [to stay in Australia],” she says. “They’d get these people on the hook then they would be overworked and underpaid. Good, kind, honest people were left absolutely powerless.”

Maria Xavier lived in Australia for three years, studying and working as a chef de partie on a graduate visa. She is now back in her homeland of Brazil, where she originally trained as a lawyer. Before she left Australia, she accused her previous boss of workplace physical assault . She identifies a number of problems with the Australian hospitality industry – and kitchen culture, in particular. “Australia relies on immigrants but we are often exploited,” she says. “We are paid less than an Australian with the same qualification and we generally don’t understand our entitlements, so we often don’t get them. There’s xenophobia and resentment, too: they need us but they don’t want us.”

Long time staff member Massimo at Marios in Fitzroy.

Structure, Culture, Pricing

Café owner Tammy Brami has always tried to create a satisfying work environment at Boosa, her cafe in Melbourne’s south-east. In a climate of extreme staff shortages, it’s even more crucial. “The job is the job,” she says. “The difference now is culture; we focus heavily on it.” She encourages staff feedback and ideas, and offers cash incentives for anyone who brings in a new staff member. Professional development is ongoing. “We send staff to a coffee academy, people do sessions in different areas of the business, we are trying to stay creative,” she says.

Even so, staffing is tight and Brami is often on deck with her new baby. “My husband is there seven days a week and I’m there with little Keshet,” she says. “It’s not ideal.” They’ve countered by changing operations. “We’re open till 3 p.m. now, not 4 p.m.,” she says. “It doesn't sound like a big deal but it makes a huge difference. We also have installed a huge counter fridge with sandwiches and salads, and we are putting on hold plans for night trading or a new business.”

Momofuku Seiōbo in Sydney closed for good at the end of June this year, but during its final months of trade the restaurant restructured to accommodate a lean staff pool. Manager Kylie Javier Ashton feels they finally got the balance right. “We used to open six days but we moved to four days with one team,” she says. “Working 80 hours a week is no longer acceptable.”

Chefs in the kitchen at Marios in Fitzroy.

They also raised prices. “Our set menu was $185 when we opened in 2011 and we never increased it,” says Javier Ashton. “When we reopened after lockdown, we made it $215 for the early sitting and $225 for the second sitting. Premium seating times should cost more money. Every minute you sit in a restaurant costs money: you are paying for wages and people have to understand that.”

In Brisbane, Kellam has taken a different tack at his French restaurant, Montrachet, reengineering his business by creating an off-site production kitchen that makes sauces, stocks and braises. “People want to go to a restaurant where everything is made from scratch, but I can’t have the same chefs in the restaurant from morning till midnight,” he says. “On the other hand, if I had two brigades at Montrachet, entrees would need to be $40 to $50, and mains $80 to $90. Is everyone going to be happy with that? No.”

Running two kitchens is a way of balancing workplace compliance with quality and, hopefully, satisfying the needs of workers, diners and the bottom line. It’s going well: customer spend is up and payroll is under control. “I try to walk in everybody's shoes,” says Kellam. “I want to make everyone’s day better and make sure they feel happy at work.”

What’s Next?

Hospitality is a complex industry and mysterious to outsiders, not least because the illusion of effortlessness that restaurants and bars strive to create is underpinned by endless hard graft. Wherever you start to unpick the knot of the current staffing crisis, the problem ends up relating to value.

Start with diners. How much do they value the privilege of having other people cook, serve and clean for them? Will they pay the true cost of eating out, carried by everyone from the person picking up their dirty plate to the farmer tilling the dirt in a faraway field?

Think about training. How much do schools and families value hospitality as a potential profession, and will they invest time and money in the educational institutions that create a skilled hospitality workforce?

Look at government and regulatory frameworks such as immigration laws and employment rules. Are restaurant workers envisaged as human units that can just as easily be imported from elsewhere, or are they valued as professionals with skills, agency and career trajectories?

Somewhere in the middle – tired, sweaty, busy, pressured – are people choosing to work and remain in the industry: the chefs, publicans, waiters, bartenders and dishwashers impinged upon by all these factors and more. Only when they feel sufficiently valued by their employers, customers and government will this be an industry they are likely to stay in.

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