Work visa alarm

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A wage war is breaking out in Queenstown as business owners desperately call on the government to extend work visas.

With fewer staff to cook, clean or wait tables, industry leaders fear for the resort’s reputation come the end of the month, when thousands of Australians are expected to start holidaying here.

It’s the lifeline many have been longing for, but with the government dithering over a third working holiday visa extension, many of the town’s depleted workforce are already checking for flights home.

Hotels and restaurants face a difficult three weeks as both cold weather and the Melbourne lockdown affect what hours they can offer staff.

It makes retention difficult, right when they need to be ramping up recruitment.

Carlyn Topp, of Highview Apartments, says small business owners are being squeezed the most.

“The big global companies ditched half their staff, and now they’ve got the money to offer a lot more pay than us.”

Staff were supported with meals and accommodation during tough times, but some are now quitting to chase more hours or 50 cent per hour pay rises, Topp says.

It’s resulting in what Chamber of Commerce boss Ruth Stokes calls a ‘‘people-go-round’’.

The government’s slow immigration review’s putting untold stress on migrant workers, Crowne Plaza boss Stewart Manson says.

‘‘If they could give some certainty sooner or later . . . and return essential skills visas from six months to 12 months, that would allow us and our employees to do some forward planning.’’

St Moritz manager Jo Finnigan says the delay comes with financial implications.

‘‘I have the odd staff member whose essential skills visa is expiring, and they’re wondering ‘do I spend $500 going for another visa, or is the government going to give everyone another six months?’

‘‘My belief is no one can give great service when they’re anxious and worried.’’

Finnigan adds many of the ‘‘wonderful contributors to New Zealand’’ face a return to countries rife with Covid-19.

As for the government’s ‘Kiwis-first’ approach to jobs, Topp and Finnigan say they’d love to employ New Zealanders, but they’re not applying.

Finnigan says offering accommodation or other types of perks to encourage out-of-work Aucklanders to relocate is stifled by the current tax regime.

Topp, who sits on the Central Otago branch of Hospitality NZ, is working with Wakatipu High School to offer students part-time roles, or leavers easy access to employment.

Pier restaurant supervisor Toby Barnes says he’s heard nationalistic rhetoric in every country he’s been to, but the reality is the domestic workforce often doesn’t want seasonal jobs in tourist areas.

That said, he’s happy to train them up, but some roles such as senior chefs need experience and the CVs coming in are thin.

Immigration run-around

Their notice given, bags packed and flights booked, English couple Charley Cook and partner Tom Lockyer were practically at the airport when the government announced the last working holiday visa extension.

Cook says they were facing an anxious return to lockdown Britain and few job opportunities.

‘‘Our visas were due to expire on December 22, so obviously we thought we were going.
‘‘It got extended on December 21.’’

It took her six weeks to find a new position, and the couple were reliant on Lockyer’s employers fortunately taking him back.

‘‘We called up Immigration and wondered if it was still technically our first year — UK citizens can apply for a second year — but nobody had an answer.

‘‘It took four months for them to send the extension confirmation, so we had nothing to prove our visas were valid.’’

Six months on, they still don’t know if they’re eligible to apply for a second year.

matthew.mckew@scene.co.nz