Hotel and Catering Review talks to RAI Chief Executive Adrian Cummins about the relaxation of the rules governing work permits for foreign chefs, and why it has got a big thumbs up from the industry.
Almost every day, new reports documenting the hospitality industry’s staffing crisis hit the headlines. Experts say we need 7,000 chefs per year to service the industry and, with restaurants and hotels up and down the country crying out for trained staff, there’s no doubt the situation is at breaking point. In an effort to mitigate the issue and avoid a potentially disastrous crisis in the hospitality sector, the government has finally legislated to ease restrictions on work permits for foreign chefs. Employment permit regulations intended to make it easier for restaurants to hire chefs from outside the EU have been changed and certain chef grades have been added to the occupation list.
”This means that if an employer is unsuccessful in filling a vacancy either domestically or from across the European Economic Area (EEA) it can be filled by a suitably qualified non-EEA national,” Heather Humphreys, Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, said of that move. “My decision to remove certain chef grades from the ineligible lists will ensure that there is a mechanism to address the shortage of qualified chefs in the short-term.”
This is big news for the industry and comes at a time when the sector is struggling to deliver the type of service that’s required in a recovering economy. The changes mean that if a business is finding it difficult to fill a role with a candidate from Ireland or the EU, they can look further afield for a suitably qualified person. Under previous employment laws, only ethnic restaurants were permitted to recruit chefs from outside the EU, with the numbers entering the country tightly controlled by State officials. According to the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI), only about 220 chefs were brought into Ireland to work in ethnic restaurants under these rules last year.
The new regulations do come with stipulations. A quota has been applied to the scheme, with a limit of two general employment permits per business and an overall quota of general employment permits of 620. Minister Humphreys has stated that the quota will ensure that demand for chefs will be met from the Irish labour market in the longer term. Despite the quota, this is a much-needed and welcome move says Adrian Cummins, Chief Executive of the RAI. “We’ve been calling for these changes since 2012,” he explains. “We feel that the changes are extremely positive and the quota of 620 permits is a marked increase to what was previously in place. It has been a long time coming so we’re delighted that Minister Humphreys has finally given it the go-ahead.”
The RAI chief executive added that it’s important to get the new scheme up and running as quickly as possible and to deal with the quota issue if and when it poses problems for businesses.
“If we fill the quota within four or five months, then clearly we’ll need to approach the Department again but, for the moment,we need to start filling these vacancies and allow the industry to recover,” he adds. Stipulations on salary levels for chefs have also been introduced. Chef de partie, sous chefs and executive chefs will need to have a specific number of years’ experience before they’re granted a work permit. It’s not something that Cummins is concerned with, though he does raise the point about pushing the new work permits to help ease the current crisis.
“We have no issue with that. We would, however, like to see these work permits fast-tracked so there’s no delay in solving this very serious staffing issue,” he notes. “We will be going overseas to promote the changes to countries outside the EU such as [those in] Southeast Asia, China, South Korea and the Middle East and to spread the word that there are jobs available within cheffing in Ireland. It’s important to identify that this is about attracting skilled labour to Ireland.”
The RAI has long claimed that a shortage of staff in the hospitality sector was limiting its expansion. It is expected that these changes will go some way towards allowing the sector reach its potential if the necessary steps are taken to ensure its success. Given the fact that proposals have finally reached the light of day, it’s important to make sure that the most is made of this opportunity.
“Every time we brought this issue up with the Department, we hit a brick wall. The fact that it has now been implemented is an important step forward for the sector,” says Cummins. “We need to ensure that the scheme is properly coordinated as our industry is totally disjointed. You have certain agencies with responsibility for training, others looking after development and others looking after work permits. With so many government bodies involved, it’s a complete mish-mash. It really doesn’t make any sense so it’s important that this particular initiative is run properly.”
The lack of affordable housing across the country may affect the viability of the scheme, but this is something that businesses will have to account for, says Adrian. Those looking to buy their own property face an uphill struggle in 2018, with prices soaring to an average of €368,000 in Dublin and around €235,000 outside the capital. Renters by no means escape these housing woes, with rents having risen by an average of 70 per cent since their lowest point. In a recent Daft.ie report on the rental market, it was noted that the figures outlined would offer “little comfort to those who have to venture into the open market in search of rental accommodation.”
“Salaries will certainly attract people to Ireland but the housing side of things may present a problem,” Cummins explains. “We’ll be advising our members to ensure they have accommodation for new staff members lined up. We can’t afford to allow Ireland’s housing issue derail these new changes.” Some are already ahead of the pack – Ashford Castle has invested in a 45-room staff accommodation block on-site (including a gym) to help attract staff from all over the world. In Killarney, the Europe Hotel is doing something similar, planning to add four staff accommodation blocks complete with a gym, laundry facilities and space for 10 people, in addition to their existing 70-person facility.
THE WAY FORWARD
It’s hoped that staff shortages will be alleviated by these new changes, but certain issues of negative impact to the sector remain, one of which is the cost of insurance. Public liability costs are prohibitively high and create fresh problems for restaurants and hotels. “When it comes to insurance costs, the government has done nothing to help small businesses and that includes firms in our sector. Public liability has gone through the roof and, currently, a large number of businesses are finding it difficult to pay insurance companies. In my opinion, this is a scandal,” Cummins notes. “What we have in place at the moment is an ambulance-chasing regime where you have certain people trying to get to court in order to get huge payouts.”
Not enough is being done to provide a solution to this problem and, because of that, there’s a lot of angry businesses out there, says Cummins.
“We’re very fearful of what’s around the corner for our industry. The circumvention of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board (PIAB) by the legal profession is an absolute scandal,” he says. “PIAB was set up to deal with all of this but solicitors are telling their clients not to bother as they’ll get more money in the High Court. We’re being shafted and something has to change.”
To borrow a phrase from a certain political party, there’s a lot done but plenty more yet to do for Ireland’s restaurant trade.