Pubs and roadhouses in remote and outback Australia are desperate for workers but no-one appears to be interested.

Key points:

  • Pubs and roadhouses across outback South Australia are desperate for staff as they prepare for a bumper tourist season
  • Hospitality venues across regional Australia are facing similar issues
  • The federal government is looking at potentially changing Working Holiday Visa rules to allow second-year applicants to work in hospitality

Pubs and resorts are often staffed by international backpackers, but the coronavirus pandemic has cut that market to a fraction of what it was.

The issue is coming to light now lockdowns are lifting, domestic travel is bouncing back, and the vaccine rollout is bringing more confidence to the tourism sector.

Publicans like Phil Turner, who runs the Marree Hotel in outback South Australia, 650 kilometres north of Adelaide, are hoping to gear up for a recovery.

“We’re certainly hopeful of a much better year than last year, in fact our forward bookings are looking positive,” he said.

Phil Turner says he understands working in the outback can be a challenge.(ABC RN: James Vyver)

Free meals, more pay, no takers

The hotel needs up to 15 staff for the winter season and out of four applicants has hired three.

“In a normal year we’d have to take the ad down in an hour because we’d have 40–50 applicants,” Mr Turner said.

He said the industry was doing its best to make the work as attractive as possible.

“They don’t spend any money while working in Marree, or William Creek, or Oodnadatta — they’re going to put $900 a week in their pocket.

“We understand it’s a working holiday. We work hard but when they’ve got the day off, we give them a good look at the far-north of South Australia.”

Esperance is a tourist hotspot during summer, but it is also struggling to find workers.(ABC Goldfields Esperance)

Problem not unique to Outback

The difficulties in finding staff are not confined to harsh, remote areas.

Craig Adams, the owner of Esperance eatery FishFace, has been searching for an apprentice chef for 18 months.

He said that like with many things, the pandemic was not the cause of the problem, but exacerbated existing issues.

“I personally think there’s less interest in hospitality, perhaps the hours and money are less attractive than what else is on offer in regional areas,” Mr Adams said.

He said people were going directly to the city to pursue a career rather than upskilling in a regional area first.

“A lot of small businesses don’t have that cashflow to give you X amount of dollars,” Mr Adams said.

“If you can step out of school and get $40 an hour [in mining] it’s very hard for us to compete with that.”

Backpackers who want to stay for a second year are required to work three months in industries like agriculture and mining, but not hospitality.(ABC Rural: Tom Major)

Backpackers ‘a last resort’

Publicans like Mr Turner say government regulations have also cut off pubs from the few backpackers left.

Backpackers in Australia on a Working Holiday Visa who wish to stay for a second year must work for at least three months in regional Australia.

Agriculture, mining, fishing and construction are included on the list — but hospitality is not.

The federal member for Grey, Rowan Ramsey, wants that to change.

He said he had discussed the issue with several other MPs in regional electorates.

“I’ve raised it with the immigration minister Alex Hawke and he’s pretty keen and he’s got the department looking at it now,” Mr Ramsey said.