Yael Shochat outside Ima Cuisine with some of her immigrant staff members (Photo: Supplied)

A restaurant owner on how immigration changes will hurt her industry

Two years on from her open letter to Andrew Little on his vow to slash immigration numbers, Israeli-born Yael Shochat, who owns Ima Cuisine in Auckland, writes about the harm the changes to the work-to-residence visa will do to the hospitality industry.

Last week I, like many who employ immigrants, received an email from Immigration NZ that completely floored me. Applying for work visas has already been an uphill battle, and the route to residence is very hard, but by March next year we will be going through a change to our immigration laws that will essentially close the route to residence for the majority of much-needed migrant employees, and definitely anyone working in hospitality.

From 2020, anyone looking to a pathway for residence will have to be on a “high skill” rate. According to Immigration NZ, that means new migrants will need to be in a pay bracket of over $104,000 a year. Everyone under that pay grade is considered low skill and can apply only for a temporary work visa. This will last a year, can be renewed twice, and that’s it – then you have to go home and can’t reapply for a year. The message from the government is clear – you can only be one of us if you are in the top percentile of earners. This bracket of pay is 200% above the median wage and takes the whole of my industry out of the work-to-residence route. (See a note from the Restaurant Association of NZ at the bottom of this piece regarding the points made in this paragraph)  

I first wrote an open letter to the Labour Party in 2017 outlining my concern over their electoral campaigns which had an aim of restricting immigration. It seems I’m picking up from where I left off, except this time more furious, hurt and desperate than before.

I am a Labour supporter, in spite of their terrible immigration policy, and while being aware of the anti-immigration sentiment, I still feel hurt and somewhat betrayed. The values that centre that party; of equality, of ending child poverty and giving everyone a fair chance of living a good life, are important to me. This elitist approach towards who we allow to become part of us does not sit well with those values of caring. 

Immigration NZ has pushed through this policy under the false guise of ending migrant exploitation and ensuring everyone gets fair pay. I am sorry, but telling people that we need you to work now but we will never let you stay and build a future here, because you do the so-called “menial work” of our society, is a form of exploitation. 

The immigrant story is one of great sacrifice, of hard work if it means our children can have a better life than us. Yes, there are definitely restaurants and other small businesses out there who under-pay and over-work their immigrant staff, and of course this is not right, and is illegal. By all means, please go after them and root this abhorrent activity out. Don’t let a criminal bunch paint us all in the same brush. The restaurant business is a tough one and most restaurant owners are working hard shoulder-to-shoulder with their employees, and I am definitely one of them.

YAEL SHOCHAT OUTSIDE HER FORT ST RESTAURANT, IMA CUISINE. PHOTO: SIMON WILSON

But who is going to pay $104K a year to bring much-needed labour to this country? Not one person in my industry is paid that much; not the manager, not the head chef, not anyone. At the end of the day I take home only a pitiful amount and rely on my partner’s support so I can pay my staff well. Despite all this, I will still lose them under this new law. And what about the shortage of nurses? Of teachers? Of care workers for our ageing population? And even if I could pay my head chefs this much, is the chef de partie, the commis chef or dishwasher not worthy of a pathway to residence? They are part of my team, part of my family, they are just as important as the next worker. They are not temporary or disposable, and yes they would like to stay, to continue to work hard, pay their taxes and be part of the community.

When the day comes and they have to leave, will there be others willing to work here with no promise of a future? I don’t think so.

I see what you want with this law; Trump-style closed borders wherein only rich, white immigrants like James Cameron can have a slice of the Kiwi dream. Well let me tell you, these “highly skilled” migrants ain’t going to cook you a meal or help your grandma get out of bed. Sure they will pay more tax while we exploit an underclass of temporary migrant workers, forcing them to “go home” after three years. Our immigration policy is looking more like that of Saudi Arabia, that is if people bother to come here at all. If immigrants have no future here, our country will be starved of labour. 

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Our restaurant industry is considered low-skill and we are all relatively low-paid. How I wish it wasn’t! It would be wonderful to be able to attract high-calibre Kiwis who could see that this is a job worth doing. Serving 100 people a night with care and precision is no mean feat. Our jobs require skill; they are jobs worth doing. Where do you want to celebrate your special moments, your birthday, anniversary, your achievements? When you go to a restaurant, do you want good food and service? And let’s say you wanted “non-Kiwi” (whatever the hell that means) food? You need immigrants for that, unless you want to go back to “Kiwi” tea rooms. 

Immigrants are people who have made a huge effort to improve their future. They are the hardest working, their children are high achievers at school and are more likely to go on to tertiary education. They are not taking your jobs, they are taking a hit and doing the jobs you don’t want to do. They work hard, they pay their taxes, stay out of trouble and their children do well. By shifting poorer, most likely browner, immigrants away from the pathway of residence and citizenship, you are not only further starving our economy and the diversity of our country, you are reasserting the fact that anyone who is not a New Zealander is not “us” at all.

*Since this piece was published, the Restaurant Association NZ has contacted The Spinoff to clarify some points. The $104,000 salary mentioned relates only to the “highly paid pathway” visa category. The skilled migrant visa is another option for those working in the hospitality industry if they are paid the median wage or above (currently $25 per hour or $52,000 a year) and their occupation is defined as skill level 1, 2 or 3 by Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO). Chefs, for example, are defined as skill level 2. If the job is defined as skill level 4 or 5, such as waiters, kitchenhands, baristas and bartenders, they must be paid at least $37.50 per hour to qualify under the skilled migrant category. 

*Another option is the temporary work visa. For jobs paid above the median wage ($25 per hour), the requirement to undertake a labour market test will be removed for employers in the regions. All lower-paid jobs will be required to pass a labour market test, which includes a requirement for the employer to advertise the job with pay rates and to check with the Ministry of Social Development whether they have any clients who are considered suitable, available and trainable that can be matched to the job. In the cities, workers will be able to be granted a maximum of three one-year visas, after which they would need to leave the country for at least 12 months. In regions with fewer New Zealanders available to work, visas of three years in duration will be granted. 


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