• The new coronavirus support payments rolled out by the government are leaving a significant portion of our workforce without support. (SBS Food)Source: SBS Food
A lack of government support for international workers may have a damaging effect on the long-term viability of the hospitality industry.
By
Lucy Ridge

16 Apr 2020 - 3:13 PM  UPDATED 17 Apr 2020 - 11:49 AM

If you’ve ever grabbed a coffee, ordered takeaway, or dined in a restaurant then chances are you've been served by someone on some kind of temporary visa.

For many years now, visa holders have staffed the positions that restauranteurs and cafe owners have struggled to fill with local workers.

International chefs, baristas, and waitstaff are now as much a part of Australia's dining scene as avocado on toast. But that could change as the government excludes temporary visa holders from support.

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On a normal weekday, Jay would get ready for her shift in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant in Canberra, but her workplace, like many, has had to let go of staff as they adjust to new social distancing laws.

While Australian unemployed hospitality workers can apply for support from the Australian government, Jay is ineligible because she is a South Korean citizen on a student visa.

"I am trying to get a job as [soon as] I can." 

Jay came to Australia three years ago because she wanted better opportunities to study and work, but after losing her kitchen job she is struggling to find employment.

"I am trying to get a job as [soon as] I can," she says, "Honestly I don't have the same chance… because English is not my first language."

There is concern within the hospitality industry that if too many workers leave Australia, businesses won't be able to function once the crisis is over.

The new coronavirus support payments rolled out by the government are leaving a significant portion of our workforce without support.

According to the Department of Home Affairs, as of 31 December 2019, there were 64,590 skilled temporary visa holders and 480,543 student visa holders living and working in Australia. 

Most of these people cannot access Centrelink payments, medicare benefits, or the new coronavirus supplement.

The only financial support they can access is their superannuation, even though they pay taxes and work predominantly in areas that rely on international workers to function.

"In some cases, they literally cannot go home because the borders to their country of origin have been closed."

In a recent press conference, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the government will not extend assistance to international students, and if they are unable to support themselves they should "go home".

Food writer and hospitality industry advocate, Dani Valent, says this approach is unrealistic: "In some cases, they literally cannot go home because the borders to their country of origin have been closed [and] flights are hard to come by, very expensive and uninsurable."

Aside from its impracticalities, the Prime Minister's response fails to consider that many people on temporary visas have been in Australia for a long time and maybe working towards residency.

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"They've got a lease here," Dani says, "They might have a partner and a baby, they've got cats… they're halfway through a degree. This is where their life is. To say 'go home' is a complete misunderstanding of the situation these workers are in."

Matilde is an Argentinian student who has lived in Australia for six years, and until recently worked in a cafe in West Footscray. She used to think Australia was a "paradise" but now she says she is disappointed by the government's response: "I'd like to think this is a good country. But it's not for visa holders… I feel so much angriness (sic)." 

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Like many temporary visa holders, Matilde is now facing the possibility that she will have to return to her country of origin.

There is considerable concern within the hospitality industry that if too many workers leave Australia, businesses won't be able to function once the crisis is over.

Dani Valent has spoken with several restaurant owners who are trying to support their international staff by providing food and accommodation because they know they will need them to reopen.

The only financial support they can access is their own superannuation.

"Without overseas workers, these restaurants can't run," she says, "They've invested so many years of training and money into these people that without them it would be impossible to come out the other side."

Workers like Matilde and Jay are stuck in a waiting game to see if they can find other work before their savings and superannuation run dry.

The reality is, when this crisis is over, cafes and bars will reopen, but the international workers who have kept our coffees hot and our beers cold might not be around to serve them.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @lucyellenridge, Facebook @eat.your.vegetables.blog, Instagram @eat.your.vegetables.blog.

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