The recent story that the Cashmere Lounge, a popular, high-quality local restaurant in my neighbourhood may be forced to close for at least a few weeks highlights a serious issue.
In this instance, the restaurant’s head chef is going on parental leave shortly, and local labour shortages mean that the restaurant has not been able to secure a suitable replacement.
Flight of human capital
This is occurring against the backdrop of an overall 93% net drop in immigration since the outbreak of Covid-19 which has hit the hospitality industry especially hard. To make matters worse, as the industry now looks to join the road to recovery, higher wages across the Tasman look that much more attractive, even for New Zealanders who have traditionally not seen the hospitality industry as attractive. Cashmere Lounge is not the only restaurant caught this way, nor will it be the last.
But the issue runs deeper than that. Immigration New Zealand’s approach to the hospitality sector’s needs over the years has been largely dismissive. It remains convinced that there is a large pool of New Zealand chefs and hospitality workers ready and willing to work in the sector, if only given the opportunity. This is despite the constant warning from industry groups about how hard it has become to recruit suitably qualified local staff, and that businesses are suffering as a consequence.
Dearth of skilled labour
There were many occasions during my time as an MP when I had to make representations to Immigration New Zealand on behalf of local ethnic or specialty restaurants seeking to hire trained staff from overseas because no one suitable was available locally.
While often ultimately persuadable of the merit my constituents’ cases, Immigration’s doggedly persistent view that the restaurants’ needs could be met from within New Zealand was as infuriating as it was downright ignorant. There was a consistent failure to recognise that being Chef in a restaurant often demanded a professional skill level and management expertise way beyond being a “cook.”
Arrogance to the extreme
Immigration was consistently incapable of understanding this point, opting instead for the more simplistic Plod-like view that cooking was just cooking after all, which anybody could do after a bit of training. They also believed that ethnic chefs or waiting staff were really just using their role as a back-door way of getting their families permanent residence in New Zealand. It was not only ignorance but also arrogance in the extreme, bordering in many cases on downright racism.
This is not to decry the skills and capabilities of those professionally trained local chefs and hospitality staff. They are as good as any in their jobs and should be acknowledged for their expertise. But there are never likely to be enough of them to meet either the existing requirements of the hospitality sector, let alone the considerable new growth potential likely to occur as the country recovers from Covid-19.
(Image from RNZ)
However, the situation is likely to get worse in the future, directly because of new government policy. In its immigration policy reset announced a few weeks ago the government made clear that there will be a dramatic reduction in the levels of immigration compared to what was happening before Covid19. Moreover, the previous emphasis on skills-based migration is to be replaced by a new emphasis on whether New Zealanders can do the jobs required.
The upshot will be that Immigration’s hitherto tunnel-vision approach will continue and probably intensify, most likely leading to the temporary or permanent closure of more restaurants around the country. A parallel situation is also likely to occur in other key industry sectors – like aged care, and horticulture – where chronic shortages over the years have been filled by short- or long-term migration, and where New Zealanders so far have shown little to no interest in becoming involved.
Putting New Zealanders first when it comes to local employment is all very well. But it has to be based on more than wishful thinking. It needs to be properly evidence-based that the goal can be achieved. Despite the government’s optimistic rhetoric, there is no substantive evidence of a large number of New Zealanders showing any interest in doing the necessary work that migrants currently carry out.
Hospitality sector suffering
As for the hospitality sector, the prospects look grim.
Wellington’s annual “Wellington On a Plate” festival celebrating the quality and diversity of the City’s many bars, cafes and fine restaurants gets underway shortly. In a City often described as having more restaurants per head of population than New York, this annual event is a popular showcase of the Wellington restaurant scene. But when the government’s recent policy changes are added to the staffing difficulties top restaurants like the Cashmere Lounge are facing right now, it could well be the last time such an event takes place at its current level.
The message from all this is clear. The government’s well-meaning but impractical immigration policy will not help our hospitality sector recover from Covid-19.
Peter Dunne is a former Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments from November 2008 to September 2017. He lives in Wellington. The above story has been sponsored by