$27 an hour for housekeeping jobs: Wage war looms in Queenstown
Queenstown hotel bosses fear a wage war is looming as they face a critical shortage of staff ahead of the expected return of international tourists.
Unskilled housekeepers and hospitality staff are paid up to $27 an hour, and some believe this will establish an unsustainable new minimum wage.
Hospitality NZ regional manager Darelle Jenkins said there were more vacancies in Queenstown than taxpayers and New Zealanders were not applying for them.
It was hoped that some foreign workers would arrive under the working holiday visa program ahead of an expected busy winter.
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However, others could only be employed under the new Accredited Employer Work Visa, which takes effect July 4 and stipulates a minimum hourly rate of $27.76 for all jobs.
“It’s huge,” Jenkins said, “[It] almost sets a new minimum wage. You can’t have one person with nearly $28 and another with $21.20.
“Some companies decided not to sponsor staff because they couldn’t afford it.”
A pay war was already underway in Queenstown, she said.
“Everyone in business wants the best staff possible. Or any staff member.
Queenstown’s latest boutique hotel faces an unusual dilemma as it prepares to welcome Australian tourists – it can’t find a qualified butler.
Before Covid-19, cleaners were paid between $20 and $21 an hour. Now no one could pay less than $23 or $24, Jenkins said.
“Now I heard about a hotel the other day saying they were paying $27 an hour.”
Hilton hotel general manager Chris Ehmann said when his hotel is full, he needs 70 people for housekeeping. He currently has around 45.
His biggest problem was filling entry-level positions. New Zealanders were not interested, he said.
“The reality is that we need people to clean the hotel. If it starts costing me $45 an hour, I’ll pay it, but no one will come to do it.
“Everyone says pay more money, but that’s not going to solve the problem.”
Most employers in Queenstown paid above minimum wage and tried to meet the living wage, he said.
“It’s not that we don’t want to pay…it’s just that there’s no one here to do the job.”
Despite high attendance expected for the winter, he was restricting the number of rooms available because the company was unable to service them.
He predicted that a real wage war would begin in June.
The problem boiled down to immigration backgrounds, but the government seemed unwilling to talk to industry representatives about it, he said.
Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi did not respond to questions about continued communication with the sector, but said he was fully aware of the pressure some sectors were facing.
“That’s why we’ve prioritized working holiday visas as one of the first visa categories to open.”
More than 6,000 applications have been submitted in this category since March, and they are expected to support the tourism, hospitality and horticulture sectors, he said.
Queenstown Chamber of Commerce chief executive Ruth Stokes said Queenstown had lost around 1,500 migrant workers employed on essential skills visas before Covid-19.
Up to 180 of these people had been employed in housekeeping.
Wage pressure was being felt across all industries in the city, from hospitality and tourism to law firms and construction, she said.
“With the onset of winter and very large bookings, those associated with the visitor economy are very stressed about how they will meet demands and maintain services.”
Wage inflation in the district was around 9%, twice as high as in the rest of New Zealand.
Workers were changing jobs for as little as 50 cents an hour, a lot more money, she said.
There were also plenty of incentives offered, including accommodations and vehicles.
Queenstown travel agent Tori Keating has teamed up with Jenkins to set up a Facebook page called Locals Keeping Queenstown Open, to empower locals to help businesses through the busy winter by providing short-term assistance term.
People could do one-time shifts or regular work. They didn’t necessarily need experience.
“Anyone can clear a table, wash dishes, strip beds or sweep a trainer,” Keating said.
Neighborly has also launched a new initiative, called Short noticeto support small businesses with reduced staff.