Nicholas Castillo was supposed to start college next week. But instead, like many Australians, he’ll be hunkered down at home, waiting for the coronavirus crisis to ease.
Only Castillo isn’t Australian. He’s Chilean, and just one of thousands of migrant workers in this country whose livelihoods have been wiped out by Covid-19 and who aren’t covered by Australia’s welfare system.
Castillo is a commissioned chef at Baja in Fortitude Valley. But shifts have been few and far between since the federally enforced shutdown of restaurants and bars, which has left most operators switching to stripped down takeaway and delivery operations.
It doesn’t help that many hospitality venues and their workers have missed out on much of the recent stimulus provided by the federal and state governments. Perhaps they’re too small for payroll tax breaks, or maybe their casual staff haven’t worked the required year to activate the Jobkeeper subsidy (that’s if the venue has even existed for a year – Baja opened in August).
The Guardian reports that there are more than 1.1 million temporary workers in Australia. Australian residents who have lost their job because of Covid-19 can apply through Centrelink for a juiced up Jobseeker payment. For people such as Castillo – who last week switched from a 462 working holiday visa to a student visa – there’s little support.
“I did five hours on Saturday,” Castillo says. “I haven’t had any notice from the restaurant this week. So I’m like, ‘What do I do?’ I can’t get any money. Rent is due. It’s very tense and stressful.
“There are a jobs out there aimed at foreign workers, but thousands of people are applying for them – supermarkets and bottle shops. Uber Eats is popular with students, but that’s collapsed [because of Covid-19].”
For Castillo, like many others, working in restaurants is intended as a stepping stone. His studies would land him a Certificate 3 in Fitness. The longterm plan is to settle in Australia and open a business that would combine that qualification with his skills as a chef. But that’s now in doubt.
“I’ve already paid for school,” he says. “If I left Australia permanently, I would’ve lost that opportunity. I came to Australia just for work, but I found myself in a great country with great opportunities and I wanted to make something with that.”
Castillo’s experience is typical throughout Brisbane as the city’s migrant workers are shut out of Australia’s welfare system. And it applies right across the spectrum, from student and working holiday visas right through to staff sponsorships in danger of being binned as venues struggle to keep their doors open. It’s alarming when you consider the degree to which skilled foreign labour has contributed to the city’s booming restaurant and bar industry.
“The skillset of international workers brings another angle to our business,” Baja owner Dan Quinn says. “Traditionally, you would avoid international staff because of that fear of transient workers, but the Brisbane market has so many venues that you need them. And once they start working for you – even if it’s for six months – they really make a difference. They introduce new skills and lift the whole team.”
Castillo considers himself one of the lucky ones. He has savings he can eek out for a couple of months, and the postponement of college is in some ways a lucky break – if worse comes to worst, he could try to wait out Covid-19 back in Chile and return to pick up his studies, but it all comes down to “timing and money”, dealing with travel restrictions, quarantines in the Chilean capital of Santiago, and the significant cost of flying to and from South America.
“I’m not in the shit just yet,” he laughs. “Sometimes I feel like it’s a horror movie, y’know, a nightmare. You go out on the streets in the afternoon and it’s deserted. Like, what the fuck? It begins to take you out of your mind.”
The crisis facing foreign workers in the city weighs heavily on venue owners too. Happy Boy, Snack Man and Greenglass co-owner Cameron Votan says he has four staff members across his different venues who are on temporary work visas. The most pressing situation is that facing Greenglass head chef Damien Paliwoda, who Votan sponsors.
“We’ve got no work for him right now because Greenglass is shut down,” Votan says. “We’re just supporting him at the moment to get through this so he keeps his visa. Damien has intentions to live here. He’s been here for more than six years. He’s close [to achieving his residency] and we’re loyal to our staff – we don’t want to hang him out to dry.”
It’s a similar situation for Happy Boy chef Sammy Lin, a Taiwanese national who has lived and worked in Australia for five years and intends on settling in Brisbane.
“It’s a huge weight for us,” Votan says. “Because it’s people’s lives. The government’s Jobkeeper packages are a massive help but for people like Damien and Sammy, they want to make their lives here and they’re crazy-hard workers. They’re incredible assets to this food industry with skills and experience we don’t have in this country.”
Mary Randles and Philip Johnson are managing a similar situation at their acclaimed E’cco Bistro. Randles says that other than Johnson and an apprentice the restaurant’s entire kitchen team are internationals, with head chef Antoine Potier hired under a sponsorship arrangement.
“I think it’s a disgrace,” Randles says. “The government has taken money from them for whatever type of visa and taken their taxes, and now they’re stuck in limbo. They’re so scared. They have rent and nothing that comes out [in the stimulus packages] is geared towards them.”
E’cco, like Baja and Happy Boy, has pivoted to takeaway and delivery in recent weeks, meaning it needs fewer hands in the kitchen than normal. Randles and Johnson have had to stand down their three commissioned chefs, who for now are living off paid leave. Randles says the biggest frustration is the lack of clarity from government about its stimulus and small-business support packages, and the confusion over who is covered.
“They have zero Centrelink entitlements, which I understand,” Randles says. “But if they’re full-time employees and they’re paying tax and doing everything they should be as a salaried staff member, the government needs to show up and say what the hell’s happening with them.
“Antoine joined us in May, the others came on in June and July. But they’re full-time, salaried staff. One hundred per cent it’s unfair.
“If we advertise on Seek for qualified chefs, we’ll get 97 per cent non-Australian applicants … They’re determined, they’re grateful for the work and they’re bloody hard workers. In our team, we have extremely talented, gifted chefs. We’re E’cco. We’re not hiring cowboys.”
Votan worries that Brisbane’s food scene could lose its valuable migrant workforce if it's not provided better support during the Covid-19 crisis.
“There are so many really talented chefs, sommeliers and people at the pointier end of service who have been trained up in Europe or Asia,” he says. “They cross pollinate with their skills and lift what we’re able to offer here.
“I think we stand to lose a lot.”