Aussie café owner's plea highlights major worker problem: 'Where are they?'

An Aussie café owner's desperate call for help has highlighted the struggle facing the hospitality industry with worker shortages wreaking havoc on businesses across the country.

Melonie Thompson owns Moonstruck on the popular Hastings Street in Noosa, Queensland with her partner Boy Driessen, but says they're on the verge of shutting their doors because they're failing to find good workers. The reason is twofold, the business owner told Yahoo News Australia. "People just don’t want to work hard. They want more money for a cruisy job," she said. "I had five interviews [scheduled] last week and only one showed up. Last weekend, all three of my bartenders called in sick."

Boy Driessen and Melonie Thompson own Moonstruck, a busy cafe and gin bar on Hastings Street in Nossa, Queensland. Source: Facebook
Boy Driessen and Melonie Thompson own Moonstruck, a busy café and gin bar on Hastings Street in Nossa, Queensland. Source: Facebook

Young people that made up much of the hospitality workforce have since packed up and left Australia, Ms Thompson suggested, with soaring rental prices driving people out of major cities and towns. "I feel like when the borders opened up a lot of our young people went overseas, and then the backpackers that moved in don’t have long-term accommodation," she said. She explained backpacker accommodation can only house travellers short-term. "I train them up, pay double wages, then they leave with no notice because they couldn't get [permamant] accommodation," she said.

Business 'worse than during Covid'

Ms Thompson, who lives just outside of Noosa in the rural town of Cooroy, shared a post on the Noosa Community Facebook page on Tuesday asking for expressions of interest. "We have had ads up for bartenders, FOH, kitchen for months. Where have all the workers gone?" she asked. "If anyone out there wants to work, please come see us. Sorry, no cruisy job seekers."

The business owner told Yahoo the past few months have been the worst she's ever seen. "If I’m really honest, the last three months have been worse than our Covid period," which was an "incredibly stressful" time, she said. Moonstruck was forced to cease normal operations but, thankfully, were able to provide takeaways. The business owner expected things to get better but said "it feels like it’s got worse."

Moonstruck cafe Noosa Queensland.
Moonstruck in Noosa is struggling to find enough workers. Source: Facebook

Low wages in hospitality industry to blame

Ms Thompson's Facebook post racked up hundreds of comments from community members who attributed hospitality's low wages and the current housing crisis for the lack of interest. "We are in a housing crisis. Worst the country has ever seen. There is no affordable housing available let alone that minimum wage/award wage workers can afford," one said. Another argued people don't want to work for pennies and said "low wages = low effort is nothing new".

In July 2022, the Fair Work Commission increased the National Minimum Wage in Australia to $21.38, from $20.33 per hour. Ms Thompson pays her staff above the award rate at $36 per hour on a Saturday and $42 on a Sunday. She claims that's more than other businesses in the area that have a flat rate of $22 per hour.

"If I paid all my staff $50 an hour I would have to put my food up. Coffee has already gone up $10 a kilo, milk has gone up $1 a litre and I’m paying $8 for a bunch of basil now," she explained. "We haven't put our prices up that much, but if we want to cover that kind of wage increase, we’re going to have to put our food up."

Business expert explains hospitality labour shortage

Associate Professor Richard Robinson from the University of Queensland's School of Business said the hospitality industry has struggled with skill shortages for at least two decades, but "Covid really amplified some of those underlying cultural and structural issues".

He told Yahoo News Australia "shortages have become particularly acute" because the industry relies heavily on the international labour market, including international students, working holidaymakers and other visa holders.

That coupled with domestic workers being forced into other industries, like healthcare and construction, during the pandemic has exasperated the current shortage, and the "value proposition to come back just isn’t strong enough," he said.

One reason is that, typically, hospitality work is "casual labour" making it insecure for many. "Plus low levels of pay compared to other industries," Dr Robinson pointed out. "It's fairly well known that pay rates in hospitality are quite uncompetitive."

Moonstruck owner Mell.
Owner Melonie Thompson said Moonstruck has had its worst months recently. Source: Facebook.

Unsustainable housing market an issue

Professor Robinson agrees the unsustainable housing market is partly to blame, making particular mention of the regional Queensland area. "High rentals, compounded by platform providers like Airbnb creating housing shortages and inflating the housing market, means that for the lowest paid workers to live in destinations where it’s really high, it’s just a mathematically impossible equation," he said.

He also agrees with Ms Thompson who noticed a shift in attitudes towards "hard work". And that's because "we have become a very privileged society," Professor Robinson said. "People aspire to roles where they’re receiving service rather than giving service. I think the honour in giving has diminished over time as we became a culture that’s more accustomed to taking."

Alarming trend ahead of Christmas season

Experts in the industry have warned restaurants, bars and cafés could be forced to close their doors over the Christmas period due to a dire staff shortage. New data suggests 200,000 extra staff are needed in the industry Australia-wide to help it rebuild from the pandemic lockdowns, according to reports, and if not, "customers will suffer," said Jeffrey Williams, CEO of hospitality industry jobs platform Barcats Australia.

Some people have suggested hiring seniors instead, to help fill vacancies. Many are eager to get back into the workforce. The Noosa cafe owner said she is "very open" to the idea and has two seniors lined up for an interview this week.

Some places have even been trialling robots to pour beers and serve tables, the ABC reported in September. One Melbourne restaurant owner allegedly travelled to Dubai to hire more than thirty chefs at a jobs fair.

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