Motel housekeeper Melina Borda is one of 192,000 migrant workers trapped here by Covid. Photo: Supplied

Melina Borda is one of 192,000 migrant workers trapped by Covid. Her father died last month in a motorbike crash, and she couldn’t get a flight home to Argentina to farewell him. Yet when her working visa expires next week, the hardworking 27-year-old faced being trapped here with no means to support herself.

The Nelson motel housekeeper, her partner Federico Medail and other migrant workers might have suffered in silence – except their predicament was also a threat to New Zealand’s economic recovery. New Zealand has been facing a summer in which small businesses – hotels, motels, restaurants, vineyards – can’t trade and rejuvenate because they can’t find workers.

Be kind, be patient, hospitality operators have been pleading, as they prepare Kiwi holidaymakers for a frustrating summer of shortages and queues.

Why are accommodation and hospitality businesses unable to recruit New Zealanders, and forced to rely on migrant workers? Click here to comment.

Hotels have been mothballing entire floors; motels have shut their doors; bars and restaurants have been cutting their opening hours to five or six day weeks. not because of a lack of custom, but rather, a lack of workers. At last week, Hospitality NZ chief executive Julie White called for thousands of foreign workers, stuck here without work visas because of Covid-19, to be allowed to return to work.

Otherwise, she warned, New Zealand would be forced to close for business over summer. “People are going to travel, they are going to expect fundamental infrastructure like restaurants and motels to be available – and they’re not going to be available.”

But this week, just in time for the summer rush, hotel, motel and restaurant workers received a warm breath of sunny news. And it’s good news for holidaymakers too.

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi announced that many of the 192,000 migrant workers in New Zealand will be able to stay and work here for longer, with six month extensions to employer-assisted visas, working holiday visas and more.

“With border restrictions in place to keep Covid-19 out, we cannot bring the numbers of migrant workers into New Zealand that many industries have come to rely on, especially for their peak seasons,” he explained. “While these changes will allow employers to retain their existing migrant workforce, they will still need to prove that no New Zealanders are available before hiring new employees.”

Restaurants in chef wars

The Vic Public House in Nelson is known for its buttermilk-fried chicken with homemade sauces and sides, but owner Ian Williams has had to cut back its opening hours from seven days to five days because it can’t hire a chef and a duty manager. Photo: Supplied

Ian Williams owns two restaurants on Trafalgar St in Nelson: The Vic Public House has cut back from seven days to five days, and Burger Culture has cut back to six days. Dozens of other bars and restaurants in Tasman were doing the same, he said.

His two restaurants had been trying to recruit for two months, but without international workers there simply hadn’t been enough Kiwis to fill their seasonal vacancies. They would usually double their staff for summer. “Everyone is competing for the same small pool of staff, particularly duty managers and chefs.”

Local operators say the shortage of trained staff has prompted “chef wars” to fill roles, in which chefs can demand $35 an hour.

Williams welcomed the visa rule changes; it gave him hope he could get back to seven days a week, and provide visitors to Nelson a chance to try The Vic’s famous buttermilk-fried chicken. “We’d be short three duty managers, and maybe four chefs,” Williams said. “A duty manager must get a duty manager’s certificate; a good chef must be able to run a restaurant kitchen and be able to cook to a professional level while keeping up with the pace. It’s not something you can recruit willy-nilly.”

He said there just weren’t enough applications from Kiwis. “I don’t think they want the work,” he said. “That’s what the whole industry is struggling with. I think we pay reasonably well, to be honest. We’ve had a number of people who might have started doing the dishes, and ended up as a qualified chef. We’ve got one who we employed 10 years ago as a dishy on the minimum wage, and he ended up as head chef at Burger Culture.”

The Hospitality Springboard programme, launched this month in partnership with government, was intended to get more Kiwis into the industry with government training. The programme is a pilot initiative that will initially work with around 80 members to upskill and train their employees so businesses can retain staff and keep them employed.

That would not help address the short-term shortage this summer, Williams said, but was a more meaningful step for the long-term. “I think we’ve learnt this year that we can’t always rely on overseas staff; in planning for the long term we’ve got to make hospitality a more attractive career and get Kiwis qualified.”

Hospitality NZ chief executive Julie White said the Springboard programme, co-designed by the Ministry of Social Development and industry, would assist in rebuilding the sector’s workforce for the future. “This will help our members engage and retain employees.”

Meanwhile, she welcomed Kris Faafoi’s changes to visa settings to allow onshore migrants to help fill labour shortages.

“This is a game-changer for the hospitality sector with the high season right on us,” she said. “Extending employer-assisted work visas and Working Holiday visas for six months, and postponing the stand-down period for low-paid Essential Skills visa holders will potentially give desperate operators access to many thousands of chefs, duty managers, and wait staff right when they need them so they can make the most of the summer season.

“Summer trading is key to carrying many operators through winter, and to miss out would have meant next winter would have been even bleaker than this year in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown.

“Many will now be able to have a more relaxed Christmas knowing they are more likely to get the staff they need.”

Motels struggle for staff

Melina Borda’s bosses bosses at Century Park motel have been fighting to keep her on. Photo: Supplied

Melina Borda and Federico Medail, who both teach English back in Argentina, have been here since August 2019 on working holiday visas.

They love it here: Borda is tickled that when people ask “how are you?”, they actually are interested in a full answer. “They really want to know and I’m not accustomed to that! That’s awesome, it makes me feel important! Even just going to the supermarket.”

The couple had travelled around the South Island, and were hoping to travel around the North Island – but they were caught by lockdown. With no income, they survived lockdown on just one meal of instant noodles or fish fingers a day; Medail got a mouth infection and lost a tooth. Throughout, though, they were warmed by the support of the other expat workers they met, and the Nelson community – especially a family, originally refugees from Colombia, who had taken them in and given them a home.

Borda worked as a housekeeper at a backpackers’ hostel, and then at Century Park Motor Lodge. As summer approaches, the 5-star-rated motel has been in demand, and that means it desperately need workers.

In recent months, though, the battle with bureaucracy and insurance companies has got tougher. “We constantly get messages from Immigration saying our visas are going to expire and we have to leave New Zealand, but we can’t go to our country because of flights,” Borda said.

Her bosses at Century Park, Stacie and Rick Warren, have been fighting to keep her on. “She’s a beautiful soul and someone who really appreciates having a job,” Stacie Warren said.

At the Warrens’ request, Hospitality NZ’s regional manager Kim Odendaal was one of the many industry representatives around New Zealand banging down the doors of Immigration NZ or Ministry of Social Development officials last week. “I would like to believe that made a difference,” Odendaal said.

At the same time, jobs from executive chef down to kitchenhand were added to the under-supply list for the country’s tourism capital, Queenstown – another strong message to Immigration NZ. 

According to Odendaal: “This will take the strain off the existing staff, and hopefully the waits that we were predicting – the be ‘kind, be patient’ message, because we won’t have the staff to serve you – won’t now be necessary.

“We hope Kiwis will now get out and enjoy the summer, and it will be a seamless holiday for everybody. We hope to deliver the service that we have previously, and we’d love to showcase our regions to the Kiwis that are coming to visit.”

Melina Borda is delighted to be allowed to stay and work and pay taxes another six months, rather than being forced onto emergency and Salvation Army support. She said: “It’s like a way of giving back everything that I was given.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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