The hospitality group prioritising visa holders

07 April, 2020 by
Madeline Woolway

The federal government’s $130 billion JobKeeper package is set to pass parliament during an emergency session on Wednesday 8 April without many of the major concessions demanded by Labor or lobby groups

Signature Hospitality Group had over 300 temporary visa holders on the books, with a total of 1250 employees prior to the government-ordered shutdown on 22 March.

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When the business was forced to close its doors to dine-in guests, the 60 staff employed on 482 visas became the priority. 

CEO James Sinclair told Hospitality it’s important for the public and the government to consider the different types of temporary visas.

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“There’s a really important category, which is the skilled visa holders,” he says. “These are people that have the qualifications for an array of skills shortages that we called upon to move to Australia, often to regional areas, to fill the shortages.” 

They’ve moved their families, leased or purchased houses and cars and put their kids in schools says Sinclair, adding: “They’re part of our communities and some of their visas came with offers of permanent residency.” 

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There are two arguments for extending the JobKeeper allowance to 482 and 457 visa holders.

The humanitarian case is clear to Sinclair: “It would really be completely unfair for a wealthy country and a good society like Australia to turn our back on these people who came to our aid.”

The economic case follows. “We need these workers in these shortages,” says Sinclair. “We have around 17,000 of those visa holders [in the industry] … We needed them before and we’ll need them when this ends.”

Signature Hospitality Group, which includes restaurant chain TGI Fridays, The Sporting Globe, Foresters Restaurant and Bar in Brisbane, WJ Wills eatery in South Melbourne and All Hands Brewing House in Sydney’s Darling Harbour, has retained 400 of its staff through its own initiatives. 

“We prioritised visa holders because we knew they didn’t have any access to the JobSeeker safety net, which the rest of the people do,” says Sinclair. “On top of that, the businesses can’t actually run without these [skilled workers].” 

While takeaway and delivery is providing some income for the business, overall it’s a loss-making venture designed purely to give some employees work.

“The delivery and takeaway for most pubs would be less than 1 per cent of their sales in normal scenarios. I think all businesses are grappling with how long we can sustain running takeaway and delivery in this environment.”

The company is also helping staff draft letters and communicate with residential landlords and banks. “We need their landlords and banks to have a deep understanding of their situation,” says Sinclair.

For employees who find themselves in a worst case scenario, Sinclair says Signature Hospitality Group is looking to partner with charities to make sure they can get food on the table.

In return, the group is asking the government to consider extending the JobKeeper payment to 482 and 457 visa holders. While visa conditions have been relaxed, allowing temporary skilled visa holders on two- or four-year visas to stay in the country if they are stood down or have their hours reduced, Sinclair says the financial burden could be too much for many. 

And if the industry loses them? “To do the jobs these people are doing takes four years of training,” says Sinclair. “We’re not going to flick a switch and turn somebody into one of these skilled professionals in six months.” 

Sinclair understands the government’s desire to prioritise the employment of Australian citizens. 

“I also understand the cost to carry the huge number of visa holders around the whole nation is not viable,” he adds. “But I strongly disagree, both morally and economically, with us turning our backs on the skilled workers that came to our aid with the promise of a path to permanent residency.”