Lockdowns have ended in Sydney and Melbourne so why are many businesses still struggling?

Howin Chui has been running nightclubs in Sydney for 10 years, but now describes the place as a "dead city".

Key points:More workers are needed to fill casual jobs in hospitality and other industriesBefore the pandemic many of those roles were filled by international studentsEmployers say they are looking forward to welcoming international students back to Australia

Sydney's recent lockdown had a "very, very big" impact on his businesses, including Chinatown's Ni Hao Bar, both through a lack of customers and understaffing.

"Now we only have 20 staff in three venues," Mr Chui, who is originally from Hong Kong, told the ABC.

This means it's now all hands on deck.

"All my business partners and their partners, I mean their girlfriends and wives, are all helping out."

The federal budget projects COVID border closures caused the first fall in migration since 1946, with overseas migration falling sharply and a net outflow of 71,600 people during 2020-21, exacerbating Australia's existing labour shortages.

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Before the pandemic, Mr Chui's venues hired many international students and other temporary migrants to cater for Sydney's bustling Chinatown.

More than half the employees at his Hong Kong-style Kowloon Cafe were international students from China, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea.

"It is really hard to survive this time, and it is an issue for the whole hospitality industry," he said.

Mr Chui is keen to see Australia let more overseas students and workers come back — not only to ease the pressure for his businesses, but also to "save the city".

"It's a dead city. We received lots of racist comments during the first [wave last year] like, 'The Chinese brought the virus to us,'" he said. 

a woman standing with two men in a restaurant
Mr Chui urges people to return to Chinatown post-lockdown.(Supplied)

"But this time, without people visiting the city, we are losing Chinatown.

"Golden Century was gone, and this time Marigold is gone," he said, referring to the closure of longstanding yum cha restaurants.

"One of the most important messages I want to tell everyone is that if they don't want to lose Chinatown, they have to come and support us."

'I feel defeated'

Misniarti Darudoyo used to employ three staff for a morning shift at her restaurant, and three others at night.

Now she's down to one person per shift.

Her Dapur Indo restaurant has always relied on international students to fill casual positions, and Indonesian customers to eat her authentic cuisine from their homeland.

woman with head scarf holding wooden plate with fried fishes
Ms Darudoyo says she had to compete with other industries to keep her staff when lockdown ended in Victoria.(Supplied)

But the closure of Australia's borders in March 2020 — which has seen the numbers of international students drop from 756,656 in 2019 to 552,491 in August 2021 — has impacted her Springvale restaurant badly.

"Our casual staff who usually work for us have now been absorbed by other industries such as manufacturing and agriculture," she told the ABC.

She said her Springvale location was surrounded by factories and a short distance from farms and plantations, and that industries requiring physical labour were understaffed.

"So it's like we are fighting for workers now and I feel defeated."

Tens of thousands of international students are waiting to arrive in Australia to begin or resume their studies, but many are anxious about what life will look like once they land. 

Hundreds of them will be welcomed back to NSW before the end of the year, while their return to Queensland from early next year looks set to boost sectors that have struggled with labour shortages.

Group of Indonesia men and women at a restaurant in Melbourne 
Dapur Indo is frequented by Indonesian students wanting a taste of home.(Supplied)

Ms Darudoyo does not blame staff who chose new jobs, because she said she could not offer them longer hours like other industries.

The lack of staff has forced Ms Darudoyo to reduce her restaurant's opening hours, even as establishments around her are bustling again as the lockdown has ended.

"I have also reduced the days from seven to five. When it's a quiet day, I tell the staff to close up earlier," she said.

"I told them if it is too much already, just call it a day. Do not force yourself."

Ms Darudoyo said she was "delighted" by the news that international students was due to come back soon.

"I hope my staff will remain loyal while I am waiting," she said.

Couriers are in demand

The delivery network has been overwhelmed in recent months by the increased demand brought about by COVID lockdowns.

Adhi Sappareng, human resources manager at Sydney-based transportation company SOS Couriers, said their company had been recruiting workers from different backgrounds, including international students.

"Our head office is in Sydney and we have around 700 people a day working as couriers for the New South Wales areas," he said.

"Around 300 of them are from Indonesia and mostly international students."

man in bright color vest standing in an office room
Mr Sappareng says the courier company is looking for more workers, including international students.  (Supplied)

The company has expanded their operations to several states including South Australia, Western Australia and recently to Victoria.

"In Victoria and WA we are still having challenges finding workers right now," Mr Sappareng said.

He said even in Sydney there were always more jobs than people willing to work during the pandemic.

"The need for couriers during the pandemic is even greater, while those who want to work are very limited."

Students are a 'valuable workforce'

Oscar Zi Shao Ong, president of the Council of International Students Australia (CISA), said students have made significant contributions to the Australian economy.

"Not only that, but they have also spent a huge amount of money during their time in Australia," he said. 

Oscar Ong
Mr Ong says more needs to be done to protect international students from exploitation.(Supplied)

"At the same time, they work and contribute to the hospitality industry," he said, adding that many also worked as delivery drivers.

"They do not only consume but are also providing a valuable workforce to the Australian economy, especially during the pandemic."

He said his organisation was aware that many international students were exploited by their employers. 

"I think more needs to be done around workplace exploitation … we need more actions like spot checks because a lot of international students are underpaid," he said.

He added the government should "definitely" be looking at the mental health and welfare of international students. 

"The government are doing things in terms of informing international students, but I just don't think it's getting though," Mr Ong said. 

"Maybe … the government needs to work more on the employers' side."

Labour crunch expected in hospitality and retail

Wei Li from the University of Sydney Business School said casualised industries such as hospitality and retail had been heavily relying on international students and temporary visa holders for many years.

A Chinese woman standing in front of a lavender farm
Dr Li says international students and temporary visa holders make a significant contribution to Australia's economy.(Supplied)

"During lockdown and border restrictions, the shortage of international labour was less of an issue, as hospitality and retail were among the hardest hit by COVID-19," Dr Li said.

"As lockdown and border restrictions ease and consumers are eager to spend, many hospitality and retail businesses will now experience a labour crunch.

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"Hospitality and retail industries should look at ways and means to attract local staff and increase efficiency."

Dr Li said it may be a slow process, pointing out that NSW will be allowing 250 international students to return each fortnight from early next month. 

She said it was likely the government would look at increasing those numbers incrementally in the first half of next year, before considering the chances of a full return of international students in the second half of 2022. 

"The return of international students and temporary visa holders in these sectors will take time," she said. 

Posted 5 Nov 20215 Nov 2021Fri 5 Nov 2021 at 7:17pmShareCopy linkFacebookTwitterArticle share optionsShare this onFacebookTwitterLinkedInSend this byEmailMessengerCopy linkWhatsApp


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