Migration ‘tweaks’ hit hoteliers hard

Restaurant and hotel operators in Auckland and Queenstown are warning that 'tweaks' to the rules around temporary work visas are already hampering the tourist industry's efforts to welcome in an extra one million tourists over the next five years.

The hospitality industry is calling on the Government to give concessions for hoteliers in these two most popular and crowded destinations to employ migrants, given high housing and transport costs make it difficult for local workers to take up the jobs.

The co-owner of bars used heavily by tourists in Auckland and Queenstown has warned that tougher rules on rolling over work visas have already forced up to a third of the bars' most experienced workers to leave. Late last year the Government increased the points requirements needed for temporary work visa holders to get permanent residence and refused requests for some to roll over their temporary visas. The Government followed that up on Wednesday with a new system restricting lower paid holders of temporary work visas from rolling over those visas if they were being paid less than certain thresholds.

Roy Thompson, the co-owner of Pog Mahones Irish Pub in Queenstown and the Occidental Belgian Beer Cafe in Vulcan Lane in Auckland, told Newsroom last year's migration changes had led to 10-15 staff or up to a third of their more experienced workers leaving, and this week's changes would worsen the situation.

"We lost a whole bunch of key staff at that time because Immigration New Zealand refused to roll over their working visas. A lot of those were young Europeans in particular. Some of them were going for permanent residency. They' were declined and sent packing," Thompson said.

"It's having a major impact on us and I know walking into my business now that I know we have a much greener team and we are really and absolutely struggling to find people to fill these vacant roles, and that's before these latest changes kick in," he said.

"We've got managers in our businesses now who are extremely worried, saying 'where are we going to get staff.' We are just one small business, but we are symptomatic of the challenges facing employers throughout Auckland and Queenstown."

Dispensation for Auckland and Queenstown?

Thompson called on the Government to make an allowance for those hoteliers operating in Auckland and Queenstown, where the staff shortages were most acute, and where locals were unavailable, in part because of a lack of affordable housing and public transport.

"In some of these centres where public transport and affordable housing is not readily available they need to make some dispensation and some allowance for that," Thompson said.

"Until we address the accommodation and transport issues, fiddling with the working visa settings like this isn’t going to make one jot of difference except to stress small businesses and worsen customer experiences."

He warned that bars and restaurants would be forced to hire less experienced and less qualified staff, resulting in poorer customer service.

"The immediate response is it forces you to hire people who aren't as experienced or qualified," he said.

"In the food and hospitality sector, if you've got someone running a big, busy venue where food safety and crowd control and responsible consumption of alcohol is important you simply have to be able to hire people with the right skills and experience."

Thompson referred to an advertisement for a duty manager at The Occidental, which generated 19 responses, many from low skilled service workers from India. Only two were from suitably qualified locals, one of whom got a job elsewhere and one did not show up for the interview.

"We have already lost the core of our foreign working visa staff due to the last lot of immigration setting “tweaks” and are now facing a full blown crisis," he said.

"We are less likely to be impressing our regular Kiwi customers and overseas visitors with our quality of service and more likely to be leaving a distinctly poor impression due to a combination of under staffing and the lack of qualifications of those staff that we do manage to recruit. We of course are just one of the many thousands of small businesses that will be hugely impacted by these tweaks."

Hospitality New Zealand's advocacy and policy manager Dylan Firth also warned that the new threshold of $48,859 a year or $23.49 per hour for jobs that are currently considered skilled would stop many experienced staff from being able to stay in New Zealand and hamper cafes, bars and restaurants within a year or two. He referred in particular to line cooks or chefs de partie and duty managers as areas most vulnerable to being below the threshold, and therefore unlikely to attract and retain migrant staff.

Variable pay thresholds?

Firth said a Hospitality New Zealand survey of wage levels paid by Auckland bars, restaurant and hotel owners to chefs de partie found they were paid an average of $18.18 per hour or $39,715 per year. This category of worker had previously been on the long term skills shortage list and therefore eligible for an essential skills temporary work visa.

He said hospitality operators were frustrated that the threshold set in the latest tweaks was relatively high for the sector.

"Even though it's (chef de partie) on the long term skills shortage list, it gets cut off by the new band, so it's taken it away unfortunately," Firth said.

He was concerned about the industry's ability to cope with the extra one million tourists a year forecast by 2022.

"If we're going to see these changes to immigration stay, we're going to need people to serve and feed the tourists, and check them into hotels, and unfortunately we might not have those people," he said.

"And that's going to be detrimental to our industry when we're trying to sell a very high value product overseas."

Firth said the Government should look at different pay thresholds for different regions, and to account for the lower pay levels for mid-range workers such as chefs de partie, duty managers and front of house managers.

He said many workers had started working in the industry on a one year working holiday visa and then gone on to a two year temporary work visa after a work test was applied.

"That doesn't look like it's going to happen with the new wage thresholds," Firth said.

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