The outsiders: Fighting for hospitality workers on temporary visas

Chef Daniele Vischetti, previously of Vue de monde,  now works at FareShare.
Chef Daniele Vischetti, previously of Vue de monde, now works at FareShare. Photo: Scott McNaughton

Workers we've welcomed from overseas are the backbone of the industry and deserve our support, say many employees.

Vue de monde's Hugh Allen looks around his kitchen as gleaming autumn light beams through the Rialto Tower's 55th-floor picture windows. There haven't been any customers here for two months but the head chef has 20 staff on site preparing food for takeaway. He's the only Australian citizen.

"That tells the story," he says. "Australian restaurants wouldn't run without visa workers."

"Visa worker" is shorthand for employees who have come from overseas on one of Australia's plethora of temporary visas with working rights. There are around 1.1 million of them, with a large proportion in hospitality.

They may be tertiary students allowed to work 20 hours a week, they could have "working holiday" visas that require them to do farm work as part of their stay, they're often brought in or asked to stay because they have skills Australia lacks. Around one in five chefs, one in four cooks, and one in five waiters, cafe and bar workers hold some form of temporary visa.

It's a complicated and often fraught arena with two dozen different classes of visa, each with its own subtle rules and pathways to extended stays and, in some cases, permanent residency.

Every visa holder invests in their time in Australia, with some paying tens of thousands of dollars in visa fees, legal bills and skills tests to come here and to remain here. They all pay tax and they must have health insurance.

Employers often front up too: a restaurant sponsoring a chef from overseas must allow around $10,000 in expenses additional to the worker's salary, including a training levy of around $4000 that is supposed to upskill locals. "Cheap foreign labour" it is not.

COVID-19 has devastated the hospitality industry.

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While total employee jobs in Australia decreased by 7.5 per cent between mid-March and mid-April, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports food jobs declined by 33.4 per cent.

That figure doesn't include the thousands of employees who have been stood down, and are currently unpaid.

Apart from some New Zealanders, temporary visa holders who are out of work are not entitled to social security (JobSeeker) nor the new JobKeeper wages subsidy.

As Australia's hospitality industry takes tentative steps to reopening, visa workers are likely to be the last ones to benefit because JobKeeper encourages employers to give shifts to local staff first.

Most of them can access some superannuation, but they have no way of earning an income and, in many cases, "going home" isn't practical or indeed possible.

The statistics are compelling, people's stories more so.

Good Food has spoken to seven restaurant workers struggling with the insecurity of being on temporary visas at a time that's bewildering even for those whose residency is secure.

Gustavo Melo

The head chef at Surry Hills' Hotel Harry, Gustavo Melo moved from Brazil to Australia almost five years ago.

"This is home for me," he says. "My sister is here. My life is here. All my taxes are paid here. My blood is in Australia."

Melo, 29, arrived on a working holiday visa (attained via his Portuguese passport – it's not available to Brazilians) then was sponsored by his current employer.

The kitchen is staffed with overseas workers. "Probably 80 per cent of any kitchen in Sydney is foreign people," he says. "It's a hard job, you work weekends, it's physical. You don't see many Australians."

Melo was in the process of applying for permanent residency when the shutdown occurred. He was stood down on March 22 and, four days later, paid $8000 to apply to stay in Australia forever. "That was all the money I had, but I was so afraid to not go ahead with permanent residency," he says.

With no savings and no income, paying his rent became an urgent concern. When negotiations with his landlord came to nothing, he ended up putting his belongings in storage and moving to the hotel room above the restaurant where he worked. "I've never been through anything like this in my life," he says. "I'm qualified, I'm sponsored because of my skills, I was employed full-time in a good job, paid well, but it doesn't take long to run out of money. It's a bad feeling."

Now that JobKeeper has rolled out, the hotel's Australian employees are back at work, doing deep cleans and reorganising. Melo isn't able to join them because his salary isn't subsidised. Instead, he's in limbo. "I'm just waiting, waiting, exercising for my mental health, cooking something for myself, waiting, waiting."

Brett Robinson owns Hotel Harry. "Giving Gustavo a room was an easy one for us," he says.

"Visa holders have made a great contribution to the diversity and vibrancy of our businesses.

"They pay tax like everyone else and they deserve to be looked after. We have made the decision that the people in our business are our most important thing."

Robinson is shocked that visa holders have been excluded from government assistance. "It's unforgivable. They have no ability to earn an income and our country won't support them."

The Age, Good food. Thi Le,  J.Y. lee and Georgina dent from Anchovy.Pic Simon Schluter 7 May 2020.

From left: Thi Le, Jia-Yen Lee and Georgina Dent from Anchovy. Photo: Simon Schluter

Georgina Dent

As Australia went into lockdown and the earning capacity of restaurants was slashed, the owners of Richmond's hatted Anchovy restaurant made an extraordinary decision.

They committed $10,000 to sponsor Georgina Dent, a 26-year-old English chef who had been with them just a few weeks. "I came in as a stranger and they have backed me 100 per cent," says Dent.

But she is no random backpacker. Dent has worked in Michelin-starred kitchens in London and New York and was named "best young chef" by the Observer Food Monthly when just 19. She studied butchery "for a break". She's in the industry for life. And when she arrived in Melbourne two years ago, she quickly decided she wanted to live here.

She has skills and the reliance that Anchovy's owners Jia-Yen Lee and Thi Le simply couldn't find in anyone else. "We've always wanted to hire Australian chefs but we haven't been able to find anyone who's stayed more than four weeks," says Lee. "I feel like we've taken years to find Georgina. Her CV is strong. She's interested in our food. She is genuinely the best person for this job."

To qualify for sponsorship, Anchovy had to advertise for a local in what's called labour market testing. There were applicants but no one was the right fit. An ability to butcher was one area where Dent stood out. "At Anchovy, we get in whole animals. We need someone who knows their way around a lamb or a pig. "

If Anchovy hadn't sponsored her, Dent's working visa holiday would have expired on May 7. Now she's on a bridging visa with fingers crossed the sponsorship application is successful.

"She has so much to give to Australia's dining scene," says Lee. "She has the potential and the knowledge to give back in the future."

But what about the expense? "Sometimes I panic when I look at our bills," says Lee. "But I can always catch up on rent. I can't let go of someone I've taken five years to find."

Daniele Vischetti

Italian chef Daniele Vischetti, previously at Vue de monde, is in the unusual position of having started a new job in the past couple of weeks. He's one of 16 visa holders now employed at food rescue charity FareShare.

Normally, FareShare is powered by a volunteer workforce. Victorian Government funding has allowed the charity kitchen to replace volunteers doing three-hour shifts with professional chefs powering on for the whole day.

Production has skyrocketed – the Abbotsford kitchen turned out 212,000 meals in April (up from 99,000 in March), all of it using rescued and donated food, plus produce from FareShare's own market gardens. Those meals are then donated to agencies who distribute them to people doing it tough.

High-volume production has been a big change for Vischetti, 26, whose CV includes Michelin-starred kitchens in Italy, rarefied Noma in Denmark and his job at Vue de monde.

"On my first day at FareShare, they told us they needed 200 kilos of stew at 3pm," he says. "It was exciting and a bit scary." The team made a casserole with beef and lamb sausages, pumpkin, mushroom and miso.

"I was very tired at the end after stirring the huge stew for two hours," says Vischetti. "But it's incredible how high the quality of the food is at such huge volume."

The FareShare gig is a multiple boon for Vischetti, who is welcome back at Vue de monde when circumstances allow.

"The planets are aligned," he says. "I need help to stay in Australia so this job helps me, but it also means I can cook food that helps other people. You really do understand that helping each other is going to bring us all through."

Megumi Taniguchi

Commis chef Megumi Taniguchi, 34, has been working at Brae in Birregurra for almost three years.

She came from Japan, first on a working holiday visa and was then sponsored. "We required someone in her position," says Brae owner Dan Hunter. "There were no applicants domestically."

Taniguchi doesn't believe she's such an amazing cook but she does think she has the personal qualities to slot into Brae's kitchen culture.

"I like working as a group," she says. "Everybody working towards the same high standard, with discipline, while having fun. Brae has a very specific way of doing everything: how to speak with people, the order of doing things, how you fold a Chux cloth and where you put it."

Regional restaurants often find it challenging to source staff locally. Lake House's Alla Wolf-Tasker questions the future of her Daylesford getaway if her visa holders depart.

"Skilled migrant workers generally make up at least one third of our 100 plus strong team," she says. "Without access to that sort of skills pool, I doubt that we could re-open Lake House."

There aren't Australians waiting in the wings. "Relocating to a regional area is always a deterrent, the skills shortage is not a fairy story and skilled front of house service for example, is rarely seen as a career choice in Australia," says Wolf-Tasker.

Brae's Dan Hunter has also found it particularly hard to fill front-of-house positions and waitstaff are not generally eligible for sponsorships.

"It's a reflection of society in general," says Hunter. "The government doesn't see that front-of-house is a skill that's necessary to create an international tourism economy.

"Some people say you need to give Australians jobs. Well, sure, I fully support that, but let's see the people that want to work at this level, and let's see the training which gets them there."

Good Food. Portrait of Michael Gavaghan who is a manager at The Winery. He is on a working visa and is not able to get any of the government coronavirus stimulus. Photographed at the Winery in Surry Hills, Sydney on May 7, 2020. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

Michael Gavaghan at The Winery in Sydney. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

Michael Gavaghan

Australian restaurants, pubs and cafes will slip in standards if temporary visa holders aren't there to help them reopen, cautions Michael Gavaghan, the English venue manager at The Winery in Sydney's Surry Hills.

"Most of the labour would disappear and standards would drop," he says. "We wouldn't be able to deliver on guest expectations."

He believes restaurant work is more highly valued in Europe and South America and people in those areas take pride in skilling up.

"Front-of-house isn't considered a career here," he says. "Most people step in and out – they're actors, students. The people that do it for longer tend to be from overseas."

Gavaghan, 34, has been here six years. "This is my life," he says. "I have my apartment, I've paid tax here."

He's eligible to apply for temporary residency but hasn't yet completed the process. Meantime, his employer Australian Venue Co is looking after him and all their temporary visa holders, offering them the equivalent of JobSeeker ($550 a week), and meals.

The company has 4200 staff across 160 pubs, 900 of whom aren't eligible for any government benefits. "We are focusing on our people," chief executive Paul Waterson says.

He's aware that his large company is able to do things that smaller businesses cannot.

"You go from $13 or $14 million of revenue a week to zero with a week's notice – well, that's a big difference," he says. "But as a business we had a buffer. We have a supportive shareholder base and a good relationship with a bank with debt facilities to draw down on."

Waterson expects the company to spend around $3 million looking after its visa holder workforce.

"These people are the absolute fabric of Australian society," he says. "They're here to have a dip, build a better life for themselves. They are some of the hardest working people we have. They exhibit all the Australian values we look for and it's staggering to say as a country that we can't, won't give them support."

Waterson has no time for the Prime Minister's suggestion that migrant workers go home. "It's just not realistic," he says, pointing to one employee who has a mortgage and is caring for an at-risk child.

"The whole situation is heartbreaking," he said. "It's a social issue. These are our people. We need to support them."

Chef Antonio Goncalves. Image supplied to Dani Valent for her temporary visa workers feature. Good Food May 2020. Single use only.

Chef Antonio Goncalves is fishing to feed his family. Photo: Supplied

Antonio Goncalves

For nine years, living in Australia has been a dream for Portuguese chef Antonio Goncalves. "I travelled on Google Earth from Adelaide to Darwin, looking for kangaroos," he says. "I studied Australia, I joined online groups about living here. Every day I fell in love with Australia."

Goncalves arrived in Cairns as a culinary student last June, with his wife and their two children. It's been expensive. "I have to spend $12,000 on health insurance, $21,000 on my course, $8000 so far on visas, $8000 on flights, $11,000 for school fees per kid in a government school, plus surprises such as uniforms and study trips," he says. Living frugally on savings and income from working his allowable 20 hours a week, the family settled happily into Australian life.

"Until March 15, everything was awesome," says Goncalves. On that day, he lost his job as a chef at a leagues club. "I was never fired in my life," he says. "But I was straight away looking for solutions to survive." He collected cans until his brother warned him that coronavirus could be transferred via metal.

He went fishing to feed his family. "There's a boat ramp where I normally get my bait," he says. "I'm not doing anything illegal but the police told me they don't want to see me there again. If you are on a student visa you are supposed to have means to support yourself. When the Prime Minister is on TV saying 'go home', that gives an example to the local community of what they can say."

Goncalves collects bait in another spot now, then heads to the ocean to fish. He reels in stingray – "in Portugal it's one of most expensive fish" – plus trevally, grunter, shovel-nosed shark, "tropical fish that I don't know but they are beautiful to eat", crabs and prawns. "I'm a father," he says. "I have to provide however I can."

Life is hard right now but the family doesn't regret their investment in Australia. "I am completely 100 per cent sure it was the right choice to come here," he says. "I am disappointed with the protection offered by the government but it hasn't changed the way I think about Australia."

Last week, Goncalves took a skills test to try to fast-track his chef qualifications, making him eligible for sponsorship. He hopes his willingness to work anywhere in the country will help him find work. "We'll go remote, we'll go to mines, I'll work in nursing care, anywhere, we are ready," he says. "Every time I look at my children, I'm glad we are in Australia."

Santiago Villalba

Currently stood down as head pastry chef at Rockpool Bar & Grill in Melbourne, Santiago Villalba came to Australia three years ago from Uruguay. He arrived on a working holiday visa, got a sponsorship and now hopes to attain permanent residency. Right now, he can't work at Rockpool and he can't work anywhere else, even though Attica would love to employ him as a pastry chef in the restaurant's new takeaway business. Villalba went to Attica for a trial before all parties realised his visa prevents him from changing jobs.

"He is in a no man's land where he can't get a job anywhere," says Attica's Ben Shewry. "It's absolute madness. This is a desperate time for a business like mine and I needed him. He would have been a real asset. Instead he's out there in the wilderness with no way to earn a living and no way to be useful to Australia. It seems like a real oversight by the government not to allow people like Santiago to seek casual employment, even if it's just temporary."

Immigration agent Jamie Lingham has been pushing for exactly this change. He estimates there are 17,000 hospitality workers on visas 457 and 482 which tie them to one employer and one position.

"We have a workforce that is available and willing but they're prohibited," he says. "There's no rhyme or reason. They could be taking up roles in regional areas, in agriculture, doing jobs that locals won't do, especially now that many Australians receive JobKeeper and have no incentive to look for alternative work."

Villalba, 33, has withdrawn $10,000 of his superannuation and calculates he can survive another three months on that. "But I really like to work, rather than just sitting at home," he says. "Any job would be great."

Dani Valent is raising funds to employ a visa worker chef at FareShare, to donate go to bit.ly/faresharechef