Australian cafe owner's plea highlights workers' big problem: 'Where are they?'

Australian cafe owner’s plea highlights workers’ big problem: ‘Where are they?’

An Australian cafe owner’s desperate plea for help has highlighted the struggle the hospitality industry faces as labor shortages ravage businesses across the country.

Melonie Thompson and partner Boy own Driessen Moonstruck on popular Hastings Street in Noosa, Queensland, but say they are on the verge of closing their doors because they can’t find good workers. The reason for this is twofold, the business owner told Yahoo News Australia. “People just don’t want to work hard. They want more money for a hard job,” she said. “I had five interviews [scheduled] last week and only one showed up. All three of my bartenders called in sick last weekend.”

Boy Driessen and Melonie Thompson own Moonstruck, a busy cafe and gin bar on Hastings Street in Nossa, Queensland. Source: Facebook

Young people, who made up a large part of the hospitality workforce, have now packed up and left Australia, Ms Thompson suggested, and soaring rent prices have been driving people out of the big cities and towns. “I feel like when the borders opened, a lot of our young people went abroad and then the backpackers who moved in don’t have long-term housing,” she said. She explained that backpacker accommodation can only accommodate travelers on a short-term basis. “I train them, pay double wages, then they leave without notice because they couldn’t come [permamant] accommodation,” she said.

Business ‘worse than during Covid’

Ms Thompson, who lives just outside Noosa in the rural town of Cooroy, shared a post on the Noosa Community Facebook page on Tuesday asking for expressions of interest. “We’ve had ads for bartenders, FOH, kitchen for months. Where have all the workers gone?” she asked. “If anyone out there wants to work, please come and join us.

The business owner told Yahoo the past few months have been the worst she’s ever seen. “If I’m really honest, the last three months have been worse than our Covid time,” which has been an “incredibly stressful” time, she said. Moonstruck was forced to suspend normal operations but luckily was able to offer takeaway food. The business owner expected things to get better but said: “It feels like things have gotten worse.”

Moonstruck Cafe Noosa Queensland.

Moonstruck in Noosa is struggling to find enough workers. Source: Facebook

Blame low wages in the hospitality industry

Ms Thompson’s Facebook post drew hundreds of comments from community members who blamed the hospitality’s low wages and the current housing crisis on a lack of interest. “We are in a housing crisis. The worst the country has ever seen. There is no affordable housing, let alone minimum wage/premium wage workers can afford,” one said. Another argued that people didn’t want to work for pennies, saying “low wages = low effort is nothing new”.

In July 2022, the Fair Work Commission increased the national minimum wage in Australia from $20.33 per hour to $21.38. Ms. Thompson pays her employees $36 an hour on Saturdays and $42 on Sundays above the bonus rate. She claims that’s more than other companies in the area, which have a flat rate of $22 an hour.

“If I paid all my employees $50 an hour, I would have to set up my food. Coffee is already up $10 a pound, milk is up $1 a liter and I’m now paying $8 for a bunch of basil,” she explained. “We haven’t increased our prices that much, but if we’re going to match that kind of wage increase, we need to increase our groceries.”

Economic expert explains labor shortage in the hospitality industry

Associate Professor Richard Robinson, of the University of Queensland’s School of Business, said the hospitality industry has struggled with skills shortages for at least two decades, but “Covid has really exacerbated some of these underlying cultural and structural issues”.

He told Yahoo News Australia that “the shortage has become particularly acute” because the industry is heavily dependent on the international labor market, including international students, working holiday visitors and other visa holders.

This, coupled with the fact that domestic workers have been forced into other industries such as healthcare and construction during the pandemic, has exacerbated the current shortage and the “value proposition of coming back just isn’t strong enough,” he said.

One reason is that hospitality work is typically “casual” work, making it unsafe for many. “Lower salary compared to other industries,” emphasized Dr. Robinson. “It’s pretty well known that wages in the hospitality industry are pretty unrivaled.”

Moonstruck owner Mell.

Owner Melonie Thompson said Moonstruck has had its worst few months recently. Source: Facebook.

Unsustainable housing market an issue

Professor Robinson agrees that the unsustainable housing market is partly to blame, and specifically mentions the Queensland region. “High rents, compounded by platform providers like Airbnb creating housing shortages and inflating the housing market, mean that for the lowest-paid workers living in places where it’s really high is just a mathematically impossible equation,” he said.

He also agrees with Ms Thompson, who noticed a changing attitude towards “hard work”. And that’s because “we’ve become a very privileged society,” Professor Robinson said. “People aspire to roles in which they receive service rather than render service. I think the honor of giving has diminished over time as we’ve become a culture that’s more used to receiving.”

Worrying trend ahead of the holiday season

Industry experts have warned that acute staff shortages could force restaurants, bars and cafes to close their doors over the Christmas period. Across Australia, 200,000 additional workers are reportedly needed to help rebuild from the pandemic lockdowns, according to new data in the industry, and if not, “customers will suffer,” said Jeffrey Williams, CEO of jobs platform Barcats Australia hospitality.

Some people have suggested hiring seniors to fill vacancies instead. Many aspire to return to work. The owner of the Noosa cafe said she was “very open” to the idea and had two seniors interviewed this week.

Some places have even tested robots to pour beers and serve tables, ABC reported in September. A Melbourne restaurant owner reportedly traveled to Dubai to hire more than thirty chefs at a job fair.

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