May 18, 2021 | By Graeme Kemlo

While the federal government had agreed to submissions from Tourism Accommodation Australia (TAA) on both international student visas and skilled migration visas, it has done little to remedy the self-imposed cap on major hotels selling more than 40-50 percent of their rooms.

TAA CEO Michael Johnson (above), who represents more than 1000 hotels via the peak body – both major international chains and some independents across Australia – confirmed that major hotels were short-staffed and could service less than half their rooms.

And he said outsourcing companies who provide agency staff for housekeeping and services work plus skilled chefs and kitchen staff were down about 50 percent since COVID struck.

Johnson said that in January 2020 there were 96,480 international student visas issued, but in January this year the number was 420,  “and we’re not sure whether they even arrived”.  Although many students returned to their home country when COVID hit, he said, “there are still some thousands of students who remained in Australia and we welcomed the recent decision by the federal government to allow those employed in hospitality to work for more than the current 40 hours a fortnight”.

He said it would ease some of the shortages, but normally Australia had up to 600,000 international student visas on issue.

“We believe our sector is 200,000 workers down…both capital city and regional properties.”

Potentially some unskilled workers could also arrive via the Australia-New Zealand travel bubble with Tourism Australia currently running a campaign in New Zealand to urge young Kiwis to “do your OE (overseas experience) in Australia” …rather than the traditional trip to the UK and Europe.

It might be possible to organise charter flights of students, pre-COVID-tested and willing to quarantine for 14 days, “and I know New South Wales and Victoria are making their own submissions to Canberra on this issue,” Johnson said.

But Australia was still staring down the barrel at another year of international border closures and that would not help the serious shortage of skilled hospitality workers, particularly chefs and cooks, despite government agreement to re-classify them as critical skills so they can apply for 408 visas which also gives them a pathway towards permanent residency.

“This is a real problem that’s going to be difficult to fix, especially as we are effectively competing for hospitality staff against the rest of the world,” he said.