Businesses continue to struggle as border opening paused to students

Businesses continue to struggle as border opening paused to students
Kaylah Joelle Baker

Coming out of a city lockdown was deemed a “Freedom Day” for many Melburnians, but for local business owners and hospitality workers in Southbank it is a day they are still waiting for.

Following the announcement that fully vaccinated international students were being allowed to return from early December left many businesses hopeful that staffing issues would improve.

But on Monday, November 29 the federal government paused the arrival of international skilled and student cohorts until December 15 to allow more time for the impacts of the Omicron variant to be better understood.

The news couldn’t have come at a worse time for Philip Kennedy, owner of restaurant Pure South Dining at Southgate.

“[No international arrivals] changes everything. I’ve gone from 80 staff pre-COVID to now 36 and am only open four-and-a-half days a week instead of seven,” he said.

“We just don’t have enough staff and so even when we are open, we don’t fill the whole restaurant because we can’t look after people at the standard we prefer.”

Set to have overseas staff arriving the first week of December, the delays and cancellations have left Mr Kennedy feeling like there is a “handbrake on business”.

He said the normal cycle of international students and working visa holders “coming and going from the country” was going to “take years” to be repaired, and despite how “supportive” the community and suppliers had been in helping the restaurant get through, staff were still feeling the pressure.

With staff members being forced to sell cars, move children to less expensive schools and families to less expensive suburbs, Mr Kennedy said Melbourne’s hospitality sector had been dealing with “the worst of it”.

“My business and staff have been slaughtered. Workplaces are not the same and what they signed up for and what they enjoyed about hospitality is not the same,” Mr Kennedy said.

“It’s a mental battle.”

International students have a long history of supporting the City of Melbourne and the state’s economy, supporting 79,000 jobs and contributing $13.7 billion to the state’s economy pre-COVID.

Tim Bracher, executive officer of the Yarra River Business Association, said the delaying of arrivals would only “create additional anxiety among business owners”.

“International students’ major impact [in the Southbank precinct] is as a source of employment,” he said.

“There is a great staff shortage at the moment which will only be exacerbated once the Christmas and summer crowds start to arrive.”

The added pressure of coping through Christmas without international students has also confirmed for many businesses that the initial delays only mean it will be longer until working visa holders will return.

“The lack of international students and backpackers particularly has really revealed how dependent our Southbank industry is on that international cohort,” Mr Bracher said.

“It has demonstrated a major structural issue in the industry which is going to be difficult to overcome without international students.”

While December 15 has been earmarked as the date for student arrivals can resume, further details are yet to be confirmed •

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