Trading for success

Changes to the fine-dining labour agreement as it relates to sponsoring trade waiters may well prove a breakthrough for restaurateurs, writes Rachel Smith.

The hue and cry about ‘taking jobs away from Aussies’ is alive and well in just about every industry, hospitality included. But most fine-dining restaurateurs would admit they struggle to find locals to do the jobs a professional trade waiter from overseas can do better. And now, a recent update to the Restaurant (Fine Dining) Industry Labour Agreement promises to ease the pressure—enabling fine-dining restaurants to sponsor a limited number of overseas trade waiters.

It will, with any luck, also help change the perception of hospitality as a transient ‘non-career’, says Anna Pavoni, restaurateur and co-owner of Ormeggio at The Spit in Sydney. Hers is the first restaurant in Australia to sponsor trade waiters under the new agreement, which Pavoni says is a game changer.

“A big problem for the industry in Australia is that people don’t think of hospitality as a career or a profession, and I think that’s one of the reasons why trade waiters have never been recognised as an occupation [worth] sponsoring,” she explains. “It’s a challenge. There are better educational facilities overseas, and it’s hard to find the calibre of front-of-house professionals here, compared to people coming from overseas. But a big part of our success is being able to have professional wait staff.”

She adds that Ormeggio relies on its waiters to have a certain level of professionalism and quality, to know the ins and outs of the menu and to be as proud of and passionate about the food as the chefs are. “If you’ve got someone doing a couple of hours on a Friday night just to get a bit of spending money, they have a different level of commitment than someone who views this as their job, their profession—who takes pride in that.”

Qualifications and eligibility

The Restaurant (Fine Dining) Industry Labour Agreement has been around for some time, but until recently was only applicable to the occupations of Cook and Chef. Trade waiters were added to the agreement in November 2016. Prior to that, trade waiters or ‘international’ waiters could not be sponsored for a working visa—they were employed either part-time or on a short-term basis, while holding either a Student visa or Working Holiday visa.

Under the current updated labour agreement, trade waiters must have an Australian qualification—or a qualification equivalent to Certificate III in Hospitality. Once they’re sponsored under the agreement, their visa is valid for four years and offers them a path to permanent residency. This is compared to, for example, a restaurant manager who only gets a two-year visa with no hope of permanent residency under the new 457 changes. It’s something that frustrates Pavoni.

“On the one hand, the Australian restaurant industry is just flying; it’s getting all this great international press,” she says. “On the other hand, the government is putting this handbrake on with the 457 changes, such as moving manager and cook onto the short-term list. It doesn’t make any sense. We’re basically asking these career professionals with great experience and great skills to come for a short time and leave—which is ridiculous. But trade waiters go through a different system, and it’s something we’re really excited about.”

She believes the changes will motivate good trade waiters to come here, bringing their “phenomenal” experience to the industry—especially those who’ve worked at high-level fine dining or Michelin-star restaurants. “They share service techniques, overseas trends, and knowledge about different wines or products being used overseas,” says Pavoni. “You learn so much from having them around.”

Sponsoring a trade waiter

To do this, Pavoni enlisted the help of migration agent Raul Senise from André Burger & Associates, who is currently assisting several other fine-dining establishments going through the same process.

“It’s quite involved and you need to be very organised,” he says. “Even though it’s processed through the 457 section, it’s a separate section which only deals with labour agreements and the onus and criteria is much higher than a 457. It’s easily 10 times more involved than organising a 457 sponsorship and it’s very much a high-level negotiation between the company and the government.”

First and foremost, the restaurant applying needs to meet the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s (DIBP) definition of fine dining. “The government sets out a number of criteria: silver service, maitre’d, visually-appealing food, uniform for staff, etc. They will then make an assessment on each application,” explains Senise. “If the restaurant meets the criteria, they can apply to sponsor trade waters, and to gain some concessions if they’re also looking to sponsor either cooks or chefs.”

The restaurant also needs to demonstrate they haven’t been able to find the skills they seek in the local labour market. “You also need to show that you have a history of training your Australian staff, that you meet the training benchmarks and that you’re up-skilling your Australian staff,” adds Senise. “And you need to show under which award or conditions you’re proposing to employ staff, which must be above certain levels as well.”

Liaising with stakeholders within the industry—such as Restaurant & Catering Australia, hospitality organisations or, potentially, unions—is also key. “This involves sending pro forma letters to other industry associations who acknowledge you’re a fine-dining restaurant, in their professional industry opinion, and that they support your application,” says Pavoni.

The labour agreement a restaurant enters into is valid for three years, and part of the negotiation is determining how many trade waiter positions a business can sponsor. Senise says it depends on the size of the business and how many Australian staff they have. “The visa for each trade waiter is, however, valid for four years, and under the terms of the agreement, if the company wishes to nominate trade waiters for permanent residency, they must first be there for a period of three years.”

DIY

If you’d like to undertake the process of sponsoring a trade waiter yourself, you need to refer to the labour agreement page on the DIBP website.

“Unlike a 457 sponsorship where you log on online and it tells you what documents you need to attach, all the contact is done via email through the labour agreement section, including the actual application,” says Senise. “There are guidelines on the website which give some indication of what is required, and pro forma documents. You want to get it right so have a good read of what’s required and to see if you fit the criteria.”

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