A popular Indian restaurant in Katherine forced to close due to a lack of staff

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After weathering the shocks of the pandemic, Urmil Lamba’s small Indian restaurant had never been busier – but on Sunday evening, after a bustling service of back-to-back orders, the kitchen was spotlessly cleaned for the last time.

Restaurant Bhoj’s only chef has been called back home to India to visit family after more than a year of working late nights, six days a week, at a restaurant battling for staff.

Despite the offer of subsidized housing, free meals and airfare to Katherine – a town in the Northern Territory where thousands of tourists flock every dry season – Ms Lamba has been unable to find workers .

“There were times when our leader, [because] he does so many things himself, his hands and arms hurt and he had to go see the doctor,” she said.

“There were days when we had to close because we were too tired.”

Advertisements calling for waiters, kitchen staff, chefs and managers to take up jobs in the restaurant have spread on social media across Australia, appeared on government job search portals and are appeared on a range of job sites, Ms Lamba said.

She even reached out to migration officers, but her efforts were in vain.

“My main job is supposed to be administration, but we haven’t even been able to find a restaurant manager, so sometimes I help out as a kitchen helper or with the dishes. Wherever there’s a need, you know , you participate.” she says.

Reduced pool of skilled workers

In Katherine, the shortage of workers is putting pressure on a range of industries.

Restaurants and retail stores are turning away impatient customers or shutting down completely for days, mechanics are racking up a backlog of work, and tour operators are struggling in the face of a massive influx of visitors.

Connor Vincent’s mechanical shop has been understaffed for about two years. (ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

Connor Vincent, the owner of Central Motors, regularly works 12-hour days, six days a week due to difficulty finding staff.

“Since the start of the year, I’ve had two people come to me looking for a job, but they didn’t have the skills,” he said.

“Two other mechanic shops in town have closed… there are only two of us here and I would like four more [workers]. It was hard.”

NT Chamber of Commerce chief executive Greg Ireland said it was no secret the problem was not isolated to Katherine – from Alice Springs to the Top End, businesses were increasingly more desperate to fill vacancies.

“We have a real shortage of backpackers coming into the territory. And that has been an issue for some time, mostly related to COVID.

“And competition from other states for business, especially in the construction industry, means people just aren’t as available and ready to move as they used to be.”

Thousands of workers needed to ease pressure

A man is sitting at his desk.
Northern Territory Chamber of Commerce chief executive Greg Ireland said a longer-term solution is needed to ensure businesses can find staff.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Mr Ireland estimated the NT would need around 3,000 extra workers to ease the pressure, and said the challenges were finding workers with the right skills.

Relaxing migration rules would be the immediate way to address some of the chronic labor shortages, he said, but “getting kids on VET courses and upgrading them through apprenticeships etc. will be a longer term solution.

“We have discussed with the federal government the possibility of allowing people on pensions to work and contribute,” Mr Ireland said.

“We’ve also seen the market for international students open up thanks to the government relaxing the rules, so those are the things that make a bit of a difference.

Problem addressed on several fronts

Earlier this month, the Northern Territories Government created the Global Worker Attraction Program to run marketing campaigns over the next three years and an advisory group, and offered businesses $1,000 for each new employee, which Chief Minister Natasha Fyles said in a statement would “ease pressures on the workforce in the territory”.

For Ms. Lamba, we hope that the closure of her restaurant is not final.

The restaurateur aims to find staff in India, but fears visa issues and the perception of crime could hamper progress.

Mr Ireland said the chamber had worked with the government and the police on crime and anti-social behaviour.

“Housing and the cost of living are also on our radar,” he said.

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