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Free flights and $1,000 vouchers: Australian hospitality sector lures UK workers

Posted on Sep 30, 2021

Chelsee Whitehead has worked in the hospitality industry since she left high school four years ago. Before Covid-19, she always thought her industry was secure.

“I picked hospitality because I thought it was an industry that would always be booming. I thought it was a sector that can’t be shaken,” she says. “Then Covid happened and turned that around. It has made work unstable, and has completely changed the environment.”

Currently working an all-rounder job in a hotel on reception, concierge, back of house and customer service, Whitehead says she is lucky to still have work. Following shutdowns, job losses and the drying up of international customers and workers, she says many hospitality workers who were once social and passionate about work have “completely let go of the sector”.

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The hospitality industry in Australia is suffering widespread staff shortages, prompted in part by the closure of international borders and the exit of thousands of international students and working holiday visa holders who would normally comprise a significant proportion of the workforce.

Now, as many jurisdictions eye reopening hospitality over the coming months, concerns about staff shortages are growing.

In anticipation of a significant shortfall of hospitality workers as Australia reopens , Australian Venue Co, which operates more than 170 hospitality venues across the country, has launched an ambitious recruitment drive to bring in 500 hospitality workers from the UK.

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The group is trying to lure staff with the promise of a $1,000 drinking and dining voucher, and will pay for their flights to Australia, hotel quarantine and two weeks of accommodation. Paid hospitality training will commence during hotel quarantine.

AVC’s chief executive, Paul Waterson, says that prior to the pandemic, approximately 20% of Australia’s hospitality workforce were working holiday visa holders.

“We had 4,200 staff,” he says. “Of them, 900 were working holiday visa holders who returned home at the start of the pandemic.”

AVC is proposing to pay for the moving costs to Australia for UK chefs, as well as Australians abroad seeking to return home.

“Australian hospitality workers were stranded overseas at the start of the pandemic. Their access to flights home and quarantine are a challenge.”

The drive will “potentially arrange charter flights”. Waterson says the AVC is in discussions with state governments to enable those workers to return home to Australia with quarantine.

Whitehead says that many hospitality workers, including international workers, have been scared by Covid and the uncertainty it wrought on the sector. “Even if borders open, people overseas will think twice about risking coming all the way to Australia during uncertain times.”

“We work really hard in hospitality,” Whitehead says. “And we don’t earn that much. So I think with the uncertainty, people are losing their taste for it, and are no longer seeing the point.”

The UK is facing its own hospitality staffing crisis, however, with reports that as many as 50% of workers do not intend to return to their hospitality jobs post-lockdowns. Young people in the UK, however, “still see Australia as this really fun and upbeat kind of country,” Whitehead says. A similar culture across the UK and Australia makes it easier to fit into each other’s hospitality industries, she says. “And honestly, they come here just for the weather sometimes.”

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“If this recruitment makes Australia look welcoming again, it could excite young people overseas to get experience working here.”

Though she is excited to see the AVC recruitment drive Whitehead doesn’t think the gap of staff shortages will “completely fill up again”.

Stephen Ferguson, national chief executiveof the Australian Hotels Association, tells Guardian Australia that young Australians and working holiday makers align with the Australian hospitality sector’s “wet and dry seasons”.

“In winter months, lots of labour is needed in the north of the country. Likewise, in summer it is the opposite,” Ferguson says. “They are the mobile workforce who are willing to go from Broome, to snowfields, to Sydney beaches.”

Ferguson also doubts the recruitment drive will “fill up their whole gap”. He says it does, however, “show how high a need there is in the sector”. He also says there is no shortage of work available for Australian hospitality workers.

“We are struggling for workers, but the hospitality industry is resilient,” he says. “And we are social animals. Once the doors are open again, people will be back at local pubs, clubs and cafes. The hospitality and tourism sector will only keep going, and we will need hospitality workers, from Australia and abroad.”