Help for hospitality’s temporary visa holders

08 April, 2020 by Andy Young

This week Bars and Clubs‘ Brydie Allen spoke to a number of operators and workers about the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the temporary visa holders in Australia’s hospitality industry, here’s what she found out.

It’s no big revelation that we’re living through incredibly unprecedented times in this COVID-19 pandemic.

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Whole industries have come to a standstill, including hospitality venues that have been forced to close their on-premise operations. And with these actions, countless people are out of work.

In response, the Australian Government announced stimulus packages and support, safety net measures that seem to be updated, clarified and added to at least every day. Such things like Job KeeperJob Seeker, and tax-free withdrawals of super, which we’ve reported on before.

What’s usually missing from these measures is support for non-citizen and non-residents of Australia, a range of temporary visa holders across a range of industries.

There are several types of visas with differing conditions and rights, usually dependent on why a person is in Australia. Most visa holders, however, are not eligible for Government safety net schemes. In fact, Unions NSW numbers indicate that 1.4 million people on temporary visas were excluded from the recently announced Job Keeper payment scheme.

In response to mounting calls for support for these people, Prime Minister Scott Morrison instead said temporary visa holders without work should make their way home.

“Australia must focus on its citizens and its residents to ensure that we can maximise the economic supports that we have,” Morrison said.

“As much as it’s lovely to have visitors to Australia in good times, at times like this, if you are a visitor in this country, it is time to make your way home.”

Why it’s not that simple

Katie Prior arrived in Australia in October 2018 on a working holiday visa, and intended to stay for six months. With around 10 years of hospitality experience under her belt, she had worked with Australians back home in the United Kingdom and had always wanted to come here herself.

“I ended up meeting my partner within three weeks of being here. He is from New Zealand and I am currently 7 months into an expected 33 months processing time for the 461 Visa. I have full working rights (BVB) but unable to leave the country (BVA),” Prior said.

Before the shutdown, Prior was averaging 35 hours per week as a front-of-house all rounder at a cafe. With those hours no longer possible, she told Bars and Clubs why Scott Morrison’s advice is flawed.

“It is not as simple as just going home. Firstly, I am not allowed to leave Australia as per my bridging visa requirements. If I was to leave without the appropriate authorisation, I would have my visa application cancelled with no lawful return to Australia,” Prior said.

“Secondly, my entire life is here. We are encouraged to integrate yourself into Australian life when you arrive, which is what we have done. My partner is here, we have dogs, our friendship circle. To just walk away from everything would break my heart, especially knowing I wouldn’t be able to come back.”

For people like Prior who have invested so much time and effort, let alone money, into settling into Australia, uprooting the lives they’ve created here to go back to their country of origin is just not a good option.

It’s something that Barrelhouse Group’s Mikey Enright agrees with, having seen the lack of options for staff they sponsor.

“As far as I can see, there’s nothing being done. I think it’s pretty poor for them to just be cast to the side. Even if they could go and get another job, they’re not allowed to, because they’re sponsored by the company,” Enright explained.

Although the Government has made some changes to visa conditions, this hasn’t extended across the board and has left many, especially those in hospitality, in the lurch.

Huw Griffiths, owner of Melbourne bar Union Electric, described the situation some of his visa holding staff are in as being an unprecedented sort of middle ground.

“As far as the internationals are concerned, there just doesn’t seem to be anything. The guys I’ve got working for me are kind of in between, they’re both applying for permanent residency which means they’re in a proper sort of limbo… they don’t qualify for Job Seeker or Job Keeper, so it’s a bit tricky in that regard,” Griffiths said.

For people who have been in Australia more long term, the investment both their employers and themselves have made (financially and otherwise) is often too much to leave behind.

It’s not simple for those who have been in the country for a short period either. Our skies grow more bare by the day, with international flights hard to come by and often cancelled as more airlines shut down. Available flights are often priced exorbitantly, as we also saw for Australians trying to come back from South America recently on a flight where economy tickets were priced $5,000.

There’s also the fact that several countries have shut their air, land and sea borders with much stricter regulations than we have in Australia. In some places, citizens and residents are not even allowed in, making it impossible for many to go home even if they tried.

To be told to just ‘go home’ when the possibilities to do so are either incredibly finite or just don’t exist, must feel horrible. And being in this situation where you’re struggling to support yourself is even worse.

Right now, the only support temporary visa holders have been given is the same access conditions to their super that residents and citizens had previously been offered. Some in the industry have said this is not good enough, considering the way that international workers contribute to the Australian economy.

One such believer in this is Esther Tie, marketing manager for Hotel & Leisure Management. Devastated by this lack of support, she banded together with two friends and has started fundraising to help struggling visa holders.

Tie said: “I believe every tax player should be treated equally. And our international hospo workers pay their taxes just like everyone else.”

“Our industry relies on international workers. Workers who are not just workers, they are people. And people who bring culture, taste, flavour and vibrance to our city. Without these people and every element they add to our industry, we would have nothing. In order to re-establish our industry in the future, we need to look after the people who have what it takes to bring such diversity to it.”

For more on this, including how the industry (and you) can help, head to Bars and Clubs.