Sally Neville Interview: Chief Executive of Restaurants and Catering SA

MS: Thanks again for meeting with us today Sally. Could you tell us a little bit about your role and how you came to be in it?

SN: Sure. Restaurant and Catering SA is the peak body for the restaurant and catering sector in the state. Our role to a large degree is an advocacy role, but we’re also an information line and support service for industries. They ask us a range of things, such as operational questions, strategic questions, financial questions, as well as where we stand in terms of policy in representing their needs to the government and the public.

Personally, I ran restaurants in Adelaide for 20 years before I came into this role, and was a member of the association for 16 of those years, so I’ve seen the role from both sides, from the member perspective and now in the role of chief executive. My job now is to ensure the voice of the association represents what it is members want.

MS: How many members are part of Restaurants and Catering SA?

We have over 600 members at the moment, and they range from very small businesses with no staff, through to large international hotel chains, from Mt Gambier up to Cooper Pedy and across to Ceduna.

MS: You featured in an article by In-business SA recently that outlined some of the issues the Restaurant and Catering SA faces. Could you summarise what some of those main challenges were?

SN: Population of South Australia is low and eroding constantly, so the industry is still an aspirational industry, people are entering the industry constantly. The government focus on the ‘Vibrant Adelaide’ initiative has been fantastic, it is bringing new people in with innovative business models in terms of pop-ups, small venues and other new hospitality models. But of course without a growing population, all that’s doing is eroding existing business’ revenue. Effectively all it’s doing is moving business from one business to another, rather than growing the pie so that everyone has a bigger slice. Population is a big issue for the state, and there are also issues around skills shortage.  The re-developed Adelaide Oval is a classic example. This week is a peak time in Adelaide with the Ashes on, with Stereosonic on this weekend, we’ve got a lot of social activity in hospitality throughout the state. At a time like this, with new venues opening there aren’t enough staff. People are moving from one job to another, or they’re job-sharing across multiple venues. This just means we don’t have the numbers of staff to do the job properly that we’d hope for. Particularly in the case of the Ashes, where South Australia is on the international stage, we don’t want to ruin that opportunity by setting ourselves up for failure. There’s a new venue that’s opened this week for 1000 people by the Oval that’s set up to harvest some of the revenue of the Oval, but of course as a temporary pop-up business, all that’s doing is taking revenue out of other businesses. The shortage of skills is increasingly dire this time of year, and also particularly around March where the labour force just moves from one industry to another to service the growing need.

MS: How dire is the current skills shortage?

SN: Obviously during peak times, such as around the Christmas period, we depend on the labour force that is provided by university students. Now that they’ve finished their exams, we do get a large influx of people into the industry that are available as part of the casual labour pool over the Christmas period. However of course as we approach March and university goes back, there is a more dire need for more bodies, and of course a lot of those students cut back on their availability for hospitality work as they start their university hours. Particularly going into the New Year, and with additional venues like the new Oval and the expanding convention centre, and with 28 new bars that are pending in licensing court about to open there will be a huge need for more bodies to service that demand, and we just don’t have them in South Australia. I have dire concerns as to where they will be found.

MS: Would you say this is a trend that is likely to continue?

SN: There has been a shortage of skills, in cooks in particular, Australia-wide, since 1963. The numbers haven’t improved at all, we’re still hundreds short every year. That doesn’t look like changing anytime soon. Australia just doesn’t have enough people to do those jobs. Australia-wide, we need significant change in how we look at the labour force, and the way that governments determine who goes where and what the need is. At the moment a lot of analysis of labour shortages is done by people that don’t understand the industry. They use language that doesn’t match industry language. For example cook and chef are two completely different jobs according to the Department of Workplace Relations, but in industry those two words are interchangeable, there is no classification of ‘chef’. There is a cook-tradesperson, and there are various levels of cook. But there is no actual job labelled chef. Industry has some confusion amongst itself, let alone how that is articulated through to the government departments in terms of who should come in and who should go out when it comes to international migration.

MS: How important would you say Australia’s skilled migration is in maintaining cultural diversity within our food industry, and as discussed, addressing skills shortages?

SN: Just in sheer numbers, current policy isn’t allowing enough people into South Australia. We’ve got such a small share of the national and international migration pool, in terms of not only skills but also business migration. Policy has to change to enable that focus on South Australia’s aging and shrinking economy to be fixed. There needs to be a significant re-think on how those policies have impacted on all industries, and in particular ours. Because hospitality is so labour-dependent, we don’t have the same benefit some industries have, where we can put it all online and use computers to deliver our food. Food still has to be made by hand, delivered by hand, and there are still a lot of people involved. The industry is also a 24/7 industry. We still want to eat out at 10 o’clock at night, we still want to eat out on Saturdays and Sundays. But we don’t charge more on Saturdays and Sundays, mostly. We all want to go out more and more, but we don’t want to have to pay a differential on weekends. Once again the industrial relations framework in Australia doesn’t reflect that. In terms of our service, we’re competing with other countries where there is no differential in rates between Monday-Friday and weekends, which puts us in a very non-competitive position in terms of how we relate to other countries that offer food service. There needs to be a shuffle of how we do things in order for industrial policy and immigration policy to grow that pool for South Australia.

MS: Would you say the $53,900 minimum salary requirement attached to the 457 visa affects the ability of South Australian businesses within your industry to hire international staff?

SN: The salary level is probably a reasonable minimum salary level for an executive position such as a restaurant manager responsible for a lot of staff, or a head chef, those positions are about that quantum of a wage. But when you look at all the other types of staff – we need kitchen-hands, waitresses, waiters, baristas, those other positions where the average Australians wouldn’t receive those kind of wages. That’s making it impossible for the industry to employ people at that scale for those positions that are still in shortage. If a restaurant, or the Adelaide Oval for example, needs a whole pool of staff to serve food, service their corporate boxes, and wash dishes, to expect them to pay $53,000 for that position is unreasonable and unsustainable. Effectively their labour market, or the immigration pool, is not used for those classifications, so businesses still struggle to get staff at that level.

MS: Do you believe having a regionally-adjusted minimum salary requirement, more in line with market salary rates of pay, would be more beneficial than a one-size-fits-all minimum salary requirement?

SN: I think the key is ‘one size fits all.’ There can’t be one size fits all, because there are seven classifications in the restaurant industry award, and even more in the hospitality industry general award. There is also the fast food award, and all the other types of awards. Each award has different levels of classification. You can’t say a kitchen-hand is working at a level where they are entitled to and deserve $53,000 a year. There should be a scale reflective of the market rate, to ensure that the right people are coming into work at the right classification of a business. At the moment the minimum salary requirement is only working at that executive level.

MS: What about the English-language IELTS requirements. How relevant are these as a measure of proficiency to an international chef or cook in the kitchen?

SN: In English-speaking restaurants it’s probably reasonable and fair enough, but there are plenty of other restaurants around Australia, we’re made up of a culturally diverse community. We’re made up of people from all over the world. The diversity of our restaurant industry is due to the enormous number of cultures that settle here and bring their cultural diversity to Australia. Australians are becoming increasingly global, we travel and taste flavours and cuisine styles from all over the world, and we’ve come to expect those in Australia as well. So people come to Australia and set up a restaurant, and they might need a particular skillset to prepare that food and to service it. Our training system is still based in traditional French and English-style cooking techniques. They have a small unit of Asian cookery, but they don’t really delve into the scope of Asian cuisine or other international cuisines that we’ve come to expect in Australia, and nor could they be expected to touch on every regional cuisine style around the world.  What that means is that if someone has a specific ethnicity and wants someone to cook that particular cuisine style, they either have to teach themselves, or hire people from overseas to come in and cook that cuisine style. They might be excellent cooks, and terrific at what they do, but they may not have had a great deal of schooling outside of their vocational education training, and therefore may not be very good at English. They’ll be able to speak enough to get by, and often they’ll live within their own ethnic communities, but the current minimum IELTS levels means they aren’t welcome. This presents a problem for businesses that are trying to employ chefs with a specific skillset, as they’re forced to go off and learn English to a particular level that they’re not interested in knowing. That’s a challenge for the industry, and also the workers who want to come to Australia and have a new opportunity.

MS: Do you think occupational English language guidelines – whereby English language requirements for a 457 visa were set based on a person’s occupation – could be a way to assist businesses in your sector to address skill shortages?

SN: That’s a contentious argument, because there’s obviously going to be a range of different views. What I hear from our members is that they would love it. They would want to be able to bring in someone with the physical, vocational skillset that they’re looking for, and they don’t feel they need to have an advanced English level. I think the current IELTS requirements are too high, there are many Australians who wouldn’t meet the IELTS who wouldn’t meet the requirements because of its level of rigour. Quite frankly, you can get through school in Australia without a very high level of English. It’s actually setting the benchmark much higher than the industry requires, or that the community requires. I think there should be a differential, just ensuring they can understand their rights as a worker and understand their occupational health and safety regulations and so forth so that they can work safely and happily, but not be required to have university-level English speaking skills.

MS: Do you think increasing South Australia’s population growth rate in line with the national average (SA currently 0.9% – Nationally 1.8%) would benefit the restaurant and catering industry locally?

SN: Absolutely. It would benefit the industry in terms of that labour pool, as it would certainly bring people here that a) want to work in the industry, and b) attract people such as university students that have time and want to earn, so they would be part of that pool of casual labour during peak periods such as over Christmas and during March. It would certainly improve the labour market and the ability for industry to continue to grow, but it would also bring customers. The industry growing at such a rate with all these new innovative business models, but as I said before, we’re just moving the customer from one sector to the other at the moment. We need to grow the sector, grow the pie, so that everyone can get a decent slice and maintain business.

MS: Sponsorship obligations for employers of a 457 worker make this visa-type a very cost-prohibitive option for Australian businesses. How beneficial would a reduction in the stringency of these obligations be for your industry?

SN: Once again, it would just increase the labour pool. It would enable people to bring in culturally diverse cooks, or restaurant managers, and bring other skillsets to Australia that we don’t currently have, or have enough of. It would certainly be of huge benefit.

MS: Would you say the absence of post-study work rights in the VET sector is having a detrimental impact on restaurant owners and managers who train international students whilst in Australia?

SN: Yes it is. Currently, many workers have to go home and try and re-apply, and struggle through the mire of permanent residency. It’s a real pain for employers and those workers who have made the decision that they want to work here, and enjoy Australia, and potentially become permanent residents. It just makes life hard for them and puts enormous strain on the employer.

MS: In the past, concerns have been raised about international students coming to Australia to study commercial cookery. Rather than completely removing this occupation from the Skilled Occupation List, would you like to see the federal government look at other options to allow international graduates an opportunity to remain in Australia after the completion of their education and work locally?

SN: Sure, and not only for cooks either. Anything that would support graduates of degree programs or ICHN-type programs, where workers want to stay in Australia, they’ve come to Australia to study, they’ve made connections, friends and networks, and they want to stay here. The environment right now is not conducive to helping them pursue that pathway. Often we lose them to other countries where they are welcome to apply for permanent residency. We’re losing a lot of skills that way.

MS: Thankyou very much for your time today Sally.

SN: My pleasure.

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