The government needs to act decisively and show how it plans to fix “staff-shortage” in New Zealand’s hospitality industry than just making assumptions and assertions.

Among many assertions that the government has made, one is that there are “enough Kiwis to work,” and another related assertion that does not necessarily come from the government but appears to be tacitly supported is “provided employers are willing to pay locals nicely.

For quite some time, such bold assumptions have been floating around that there are enough motivated Kiwis willing to work in different sectors of the New Zealand economy, which remains unsubstantiated with appropriate data and research.

Notwithstanding such assumptions, often reverberated on social media, businesses, particularly small businesses, continue to reel under the challenge of dealing with staff-shortage – with the situation escalating in different sectors at different times.

Currently, New Zealand’s hospitality sector is facing an unprecedented staff shortage forcing many businesses to downsize operations, winding up operations or reducing the number of hours of operations to remain viable.

This is, unfortunately, happening at a time when more Kiwis are willing to dine out or takeaway, thus showing their support to the sector after a disastrous 2020.

Notably, the hospitality sector was the single biggest sector that took the biggest hit during successive lockdowns for being identified as the biggest threat of mass gathering and potential spread of the Covid-19 virus, thus more adversely affecting the sector than others.

The government, which is riding high on popularity for its Covid-19 management, has so far not responded to the sector’s concern with much confidence.

New Zealand’s café and restaurant sector contributes around $12 billion to the economy and employs more than 100,000 people.

The sector has been facing a shortage of staff for quite some time, increasing its reliance on migrant labour, including both on holiday visas and those in the country on skilled work visas.

However, the situation has started to worsen after the beginning of the Covid pandemic in March 2020 and the accompanying border closure.

The issue has gained media attention only recently, particularly after the recent open letter written to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Restaurant Association’s lights-off campaign last week.

Responding to media probing on the issue, on 6th July, Prime Minister Ardern had said, “I am aware of those issues, and we as a Cabinet have discussed what can we do in the face of what are areas of very genuine need.

“We know there’s a lot of pressure, we’re in a situation where it’s hard to bring in labour and also many are saying they’re hard to find domestically so I hear that.”

“She said the government had already extended visas for people who are untrained and the government was again considering the possibility.

“Alongside continuing to encourage sectors to try and access and train New Zealand’s domestic workforce, at the same time we acknowledge in some areas they have done a lot of work and are still struggling so we’ll have more to say on that in the not-too-distant future,” Ardern said.

The above response is a classic example of a listening, acknowledging, and responding approach – borrowed from any sales script – designed to demonstrate active listening and empathetic response on the part of those involved.

Indeed, this is a reasonably accepted demonstration of good communication skills.

However, policymaking and public governance is slightly more than just “good communication skills.”

It is about remaining ahead of the curve and working with different sector stakeholders in finding solutions affecting them the most.

Every time a sector cries for the shortage of workforce, an accompanied voice gains traction that asserts that “importing migrant workers from overseas is not the solution to the problem.”

Indeed, such grandstanding is often contemptuous towards migrant workers who work exceptionally hard under constantly changing immigration rules in this country to pursue the dream of Kiwi life.

However, regardless, these kinds of assertions are also accompanied by calls for a complete “reset” of the sector (we have already heard calls of reset in hospo-sector, immigration sector etc.) – which, though, sounds moral and intellectual grandstanding – means nothing.

At least, the government has not been able to follow up such grandstanding around “resets” with a clear and achievable plan so far. 

While managing borders and MIQ facilities in a manner to keep New Zealand safe from Covid is the government’s top priority, it should also be equally committed to find solutions for small businesses reeling with staff shortage and ensure access to workers.

Despite the popular assumption that some sectors are notoriously aligned towards the migrant workforce, restaurant owners are not just crying for migrant labours – as anyway they are costlier to the business as per new immigration rules, which require them to pay an exorbitant $27 p/h.

All they are asking for is access to willing and available workers for their respective business operations.

If the government thinks there are enough willing local work force, then it has to do little more handholding and find ways to improve restaurant business’s access to workforce – because the sector is critically short of workforce.