Following the government’s major announcement on immigration rebalance on May 11 and the new requirement of “formal qualification” for any future incoming migrant chefs from overseas, some concerns are being raised if the days of ethnic food outlets are truly over in New Zealand.

Notably, in recent years NZ has witnessed a massive increase in ethnic food outlets, which has not only added a lot of colours to the country’s gastronomic circuit but also had added diversity of options for the Kiwi food lovers.

This growth in the sector has primarily been driven by the growing demand for ethnic food with the gradual increase in the share of the ethnic migrant population in the country who consume more ethnic (Asian and South Asian) foods and has largely been underpinned by the migrant chefs hired from overseas, who brought-in their years of honed skills to NZ’s ever-expanding ethnic food circuit.

That growth in the ethnic food sector is all set to face a stumbling block as the government brings an unusual requirement of having a formal educational qualification in a school or university to be eligible for a NZ work visa.

Many ethnic restaurateurs are sceptical in a private conversation that this new immigration requirement is not grounded in reality and would affect their business models adversely as most hospitality operators are already reeling under an acute shortage of skilled labour.

“Most of the migrant chefs that line up to work in NZ do not have any option available to them in their respective countries of origin for a formal education,” says Shivani Arora, Managing Director of the Shivani Vegetarian Indian restaurant chain in Auckland.

“We employ sweet-makers or sweet chefs that bring years of honed skills of making legendary Indian sweets which is not taught in any educational school or university, and there is no formal degree,” Shivani Arora argues.

Her son Abhinav Arora who looks after day-to-day operations, including hiring staff and dealing with the immigration for the business, also concurs, arguing that the migrant chefs they traditionally hire have largely been without much formal education, yet they bring years of work experience and honed skills desperately needed for any successful Indian restaurant business in NZ.

The hospitality industry is already reeling under short supply of skilled labour

This additional requirement for future incoming migrant chefs is expected to further exacerbate the acute short supply of skilled workers within the hospitality industry.

While the government had patted its own back at the time of the announcement of immigration rebalance, saying that the border is reopening from July 31 and the special concession granted to the hospitality and tourism sector to continue to bring skilled migrant workers till April next year under the pre-accredited Employer Work Visa system (that allows hiring overseas migrant workers below media wages), several ethnic restaurant operators remain sceptical if that will open floodgates for skilled workers for their businesses.

“Working holiday visa holders that the government and the hospitality sector is counting upon largely does not provide a skilled workforce for Indian restaurants, so the labour shortage is not coming to an end for us in the near term,” said the owner of another South Auckland based popular Indian eatery who chose to remain anonymous.

“Now, with this new requirement of formal education for future incoming chefs, there will be a further shortage of skilled workforce that is not easily replaceable onshore, despite best intentions of the government,” he said.

“Many people would recall that till recently there were some 2500-3000 Indian chefs who have been languishing in the country for more than a decade, despite being skilled workers as they did not meet English language requirement for permanent residency and were forced to live on extended work visas. That tells about the general literacy levels of the ethnic migrant chefs and the opportunities available for them in foreign countries,” he concluded.

Does this mean the days of ethnic food restaurants are limited?

Abhinav Arora from Shivani Restaurants remains cautious with the suggestion and concludes, “Not all ethnic food restaurants but several mom-and-pop shops, small takeaways shops of ethnic food which added a lot of colour to NZ’s food circuit will eventually close as they will struggle to find and hire chefs with formal education from overseas.”

Shivani Arora adds by asking why the government could not revert to an earlier system where the overseas hired migrant chefs could complete a formal education while being onshore along with work, that way ensuring that NZ’s immigration system remains uncompromised and small businesses could also continue to operate and contribute to the economy.