Chef Shortage Looms in Australia Thanks to Work Visa Crackdown

Blame the U.S. election and Brexit.

Australia's Visa Crackdown Puts Heat on Chefs

The anti-globalization virus is threatening to infect Australia's restaurants. A nationalist “jobs for Australians first” push by politicians could be bad news for the nation's food lovers, given more work visas are granted to cooks and chefs than any other profession.

The government's planned crackdown on visas, known as 457s, reflects the fallout from Donald Trump's U.S. election win and the Brexit vote, as Australian lawmakers scramble to neutralize populist rallying points. Two problems: the food industry is blossoming in an Australia increasingly enamored by culinary delights; while restaurants are also a major selling point for tourism, a pillar of the country's post-mining economy.

“I really don't think they've really thought this one through,” said Andrew Hughes, a lecturer at the College of Business and Economics at Australian National University. “They're trying to resolve a political problem in response to Trump and populism without considering the economic consequences. The flow-on effects will be huge: outside staff shortages, increased wages and higher restaurant bills, it will diminish the multinational culinary experience Australia offers and its appeal abroad.”

The other issue is not enough Australians want to become chefs --whether it's the anti-social hours or lack of status, there's a market shortfall. That's the main reason for the proliferation of 457 visas for overseas workers.

Australia's restaurant, café and catering industry is certainly significant. It employs 554,200 people across 35,900 businesses and is the biggest contributor to the visitor economy, which spans foreign and domestic visitors. The industry body says tourism has been flagged as one of Australia’s five super growth areas -- second only to natural gas.

Culturally, the rise of hugely popular television programs like Master Chef; the increasing numbers of households hiring chefs to come and cook for them as a special event; and the proliferation of restaurants and cafes in Australia highlights the nation's turn from its pre-multicultural “meat and three veg.'' Yet unlike the U.S., where chefs are sometimes viewed as rockstars, their status is more humble Down Under, as restaurateurs often view them as equivalent to cooks.

This might help partly explain lawmakers' oversight of the profession as they confront a potent political risk.

Trump's surprise election, months after the British electorate unexpectedly voted to quit the European Union, is part of a global wave of populism sweeping the developed world and threatening political elites. While Australia has managed to keep economic inequality relatively under control, both the opposition Labor Party, which proposed the tightening of visa rules, and the ruling coalition that responded with its own measures, fear the spread of anti-globalization.

“But in a way, the horse has already bolted here,” said Hughes, referring to the July election of four Australian senators based on a platform of halting Muslim immigration. “I'm not sure cracking down on temporary work visas will stop that. The political issue will remain and they'll have created a new economic problem while they were trying to fix it.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.