“We will no longer allow 457 visas to be passports to jobs that could and should go to Australians.” So said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull earlier this month when announcing that 457 visas for skilled migrants will be scrapped. But what if some of those jobs can’t be done by Australians?
Broadsheet’s Local Knowledge series focuses on restaurants specialising in regional cuisines, with dishes and techniques specific to minority groups and their cultures. The people who make this food often have years of training and are considered masters of niche techniques and dishes. Much of the knowledge is passed down through generations of families.
The 457 has been replaced by the Temporary Skill Shortage visa program. It consists of two new visas. One is short-term (up to two years) and the other is up to four years. Costs for both are higher than for the 457, which was $1060 – the two new visas cost $1150 and $2400, respectively.
The medium-term visa also requires a higher level of English proficiency – a deterrent to many skilled chefs from overseas.
We spoke with several chefs from lesser-known, family-owned, community-focused restaurants covered in Local Knowledge. Many are worried about their future.
Petar Tasic, Madera Kafe
Tasic runs Madera Kafe, a Serbian restaurant in Warwick Farm hugely popular among Sydney’s Balkan community. He’s been trying to open a second restaurant for almost 18 months.
“It took me nine months to get my 457 visa approved for my chef and, believe it or not, I got it approved on Thursday [before Easter]. Tuesday, Turnbull pulls the rug from under any outstanding 457. Had I not achieved approval for this 457 visa on Thursday I honestly think there's a chance I would have canned the whole project and lost a good $650,000.
“I think it's great that they want to protect the Australian working population, but there needs to be leniency. If it's McDonald’s, don't allow 457 visas. Anyone can learn to flip burgers. But for cuisines with specific skillsets we need [foreign chefs] here.
“This is not going to help the restaurant industry, it's just going to keep it mainstream. You won't see a development of culture and that's what we need to keep the industry going.”
Ahshanul Shourav, Bottola
Ahshanul Shourav runs a Bangladeshi restaurant in Lakemba specialising in street food from Dhaka. He had plans to bring over a chef from Bangladesh, but is now unsure the chef will be able to get a visa due to his poor English.
“It's a tough situation. There are very few chefs in our [Bangladeshi] culture. We've been suffering for more than a year looking for a good chef. We were thinking of bringing someone in, but English is a big problem for Bangladeshi chefs.” Chefs fall into the long-term, four-year visa category, which has stringent English-proficiency testing. “I also have to pay a lot of money. It's a big matter for small businesses.”
Stephen Poo, Yang’s Dumplings
Yang’s Dumplings is a popular chain from Shanghai. Stephen Poo and Vivienne Chen, both Shanghainese, brought the chain to Sydney after missing food from their hometown. They’re currently looking for chefs for a second site.
Poo says it’s extremely difficult to hire locally. “In Shanghai, a chef would probably need more than three years of training to independently operate in the kitchen to make this specific Shanghainese-style dumpling. Most Chinese chefs in Australia are not qualified for these particular skills.”
“I agree with some of the points the politicians make. However, I believe we also need to look into a larger picture and think outside the box. Those skilled chefs on 457 visas are contributing greatly to this country.” Poo goes on to explain that his ability to open a restaurant creates work not just for his staff, but for the architects and shop-fitters he engaged for the project. “By running our business, we are offering eight to 10 part-time and full-time jobs to the local people. Some of our employees were even previously on social securities.
“If we can’t find the right-skilled chef, we are then forced to separate the tasks and hire two to three times more staff, which we really can't afford for our scale of operations.
“The politicians and wealthy people might have money to go to large, high-level restaurants to enjoy their authentic food where those restaurants might be in monopoly of [local] skilled chefs. For the local community, people go to smaller-sized local restaurants to enjoy less expensive authentic food.”
Adam Vargas, Sweet Kiss Cake Shop
Vargas owns and runs Sweet Kiss Cake Shop, a Hungarian patisserie in Clovelly. Vargas makes modern pastries and his parents prepare the strudel, dobos and esterházy.
"I've been looking for a pastry chef for over a year. There's just no one available. I know major companies going to Dubai, the Philippines and India to pick up chefs. One company I spoke to is picking up 500 chefs. We can't do that in Australia. We don't have the population willing to do that.
“I have an [employee] who's been here for five years, she came on a 457 visa. She's been extremely loyal. No Australian has ever done that.