Labour pinch puts restaurant owners in limbo

Raevathi Supramaniam

THE fate of the food and beverage sector hangs in the balance, as industry players are unable to employ local workers or apply for foreign labourers for relief from the manpower shortage affecting the field, business owners said.

This, they said, meant they are suffering heavy losses due to their inability to meet demand.

Many have either slashed operating hours or shuttered because of the shortage, they said.

Ala Hussein Salih, owner of Sahara Tent, an Arabian restaurant in Ampang, said he has had to wear several hats to deal with the shortage of workers.

“It’s a conspiracy against the Malaysian economy,” Salih told The Malaysian Insight.

“I’m a taxpayer but you don’t want to give me manpower. I need waiters, kitchen assistants and drivers.

“I’m the owner of a few restaurants, but I have to drive myself to deliver food. We pay fair salaries, but we can’t get workers.”

Salih, who used to own three Arab restaurants and two Thai restaurants, had to close one of his restaurants as he did not have enough workers.

“Since 2018, I have had a shortage of 30 workers. I have 300 seats and I want to run 24 hours, but I can’t.

“Now I have applied for 50 foreign workers, it may not be enough, but something is better than nothing.”

Salih said another problem he has is how some of his workers would have to return to their home countries after having worked in Malaysia for five years.

“I have eight workers who have been here for five years, and now the authorities are telling me I cannot renew their visas.

Ala Hussein Salih, who owns several restaurants, says the requirement to send foreign workers home after five years is unreasonable as it means he has to let go of well-trained manpower for newcomers. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Najjua Zulkefli, September 10, 2022.

“These workers have good experience, are well behaved and haven’t broken the law – now you ask me to send them back, but you won’t replace them.

“We are not allowed to keep people who are well trained, who understand the business and the customers,” Salih said.

Salih’s four restaurants are losing around RM200,000 monthly due to the manpower shortage.

“We have about 28 workers for the four restaurants. A majority of them are from Bangladesh, a few are from Indonesia, some from Iraq, one or two from Pakistan and one from Nepal.

“I need servers the most. (Without enough servers,) the wait time is long, that’s how we lose customers.”

Let refugees work

Jeremy Lim, vice-president of the Restaurant and Bistro Owners Association, said allowing refugees to be temporarily employed to fill the labour shortage is a good short-term measure.

“Locals don’t want to work and we can’t import foreign workers. There are over 100,000 refugees, why not use them?

“We suggested that the government recognise UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) card-holders as a temporary workforce, but rather than do that and save money, they are importing Bangladeshi workers.

“If they employ refugees, they can charge businesses levies, and make sure they (the businesses) contribute to EPF (Employees Provident Fund) and Sosco (Social Security Organisation) for the workers. At least they can give back to the economy,” he said.

Lim said the ministries need to start working together to iron out the issue as soon as possible.

“Small and medium enterprises are the backbone of the country, there are about 200,000 restaurants. That is a formidable number. If they don’t take care of us, when everybody closes down, what is everyone going to eat?

A short-term measure suggested by restaurant owners to address the labour shortage affecting the food and beverage industry is to hire refugees instead of importing Bangladeshi workers. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Najjua Zulkefli, September 10, 2022.

“They (government factions) need to stop fighting for power. Industries are dying. Between the ministries, can’t they work something out?

“Elections are coming, and a lot of your constituents are from the business community, so take care of us.”

Labour recruitment criteria

C. Krishnan, vice-president of the Malaysian Indian Restaurant Owners Association (Primas), said the new criteria for businesses to hire workers are slowing down the recruitment process.

“The government is cautious about the forced labour issue, so they are implementing regulations to make sure workers are treated well,” Krishnan said.

“Those requirements are among the approval criteria and have confused vendors as they are not prepared. Now they have started accommodating and things are moving.

“It is very slow moving, but it is happening. But the business operators and manufacturers are desperate.”

Krishnan said besides the Malaysian government, the origin countries of the workers must also play their part.

“Relevant resource countries and embassies also play a major role in bringing workers here and they also have to approve things, which also takes time. These are all new matters that have never before been in practice.”

Primas has 1,500 members comprising 4,000 restaurants nationwide. About 30% have closed, are struggling, or are on the verge of shuttering, Krishnan said.

“They are also operating for fewer hours due to the lack of manpower. For Indian restaurants alone, we need about 15,000 to 20,000 workers. This is very few compared with the manufacturing, construction and plantation sector.”

Malaysia received its first batch of workers from Bangladesh last month. – September 10, 2022.

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