Strict English language requirements for foreign workers are being reviewed as the Australian Immigration Department negotiates a new labour agreement for the hospitality industry.
The department is evaluating an industry request to fast-track thousands more foreign chefs and cooks on temporary work visas.
Separately, the department is considering lowering the existing requirement for 457 visa workers to have "functional English'', as part of a government-ordered inquiry into the temporary work scheme.
Restaurant and Catering Australia chief executive John Hart yesterday revealed the hospitality industry wants the agreement to extend 457 visas to cover waiters and bar staff, as well as skilled chefs and managers.
The industry also wants to waive English language requirements and axe the $53,900 minimum salary.
Mr Hart said foreign workers should be paid the same award rates as Australian staff. And he said kitchen staff did not need to speak English.
"The reality is that most of the people coming into the business are cooks and chefs and many of the kitchens, especially in the ethnic cuisine, don't use English at all,'' he said. "The language of the kitchen is the language of the cuisine. It is not appropriate to set the bar so high where there's no requirement for English in the workplace, particularly with cooks and chefs.''
Mr Hart said the industry needed to recruit 3500 more chefs and cooks because of a shortage of local labour.
Restaurateur Philip Thompson, who owns the Sydney Cove Oyster Bar, said he had sponsored two chefs and two managers on 457 visas, and relied heavily on backpackers and foreign students to staff his popular Circular Quay eatery.
Mr Thompson said he paid award wages, but still could not find suitable Australian workers.
Only three of his 40 staff, including the head chef, were Australian. He has hired seven Italian waiters – "they're fantastic and really understand service'' – but backpacker visa rules prevented him employing them for more than six months.
"It's not seen as a profession in Australia – it tends to be a part-time job for people to put themselves through uni – but a lot of the overseas people see it as a profession,'' Mr Thompson said.
His general manager is Indonesian Dimple Nanikram, who first came to Australia from Bali to study business management.
She said Australian jobseekers did not want to work weekends, even though they were paid time and a half on Saturdays and double time on Sundays.
The restaurant's floor manager is 27-year-old Turkish woman Hasrel Talus, who worked for years in international hotels and restaurants in Istanbul before moving to Australia to study English.
"We have 200 resumes at the moment and there is not one Australian one there – they are all from overseas,'' she said yesterday. "I love working here; you can't complain working every day in front of the Harbour Bridge.''
Source: Natasha Bita, The Australian