Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Wait… where’s the service staff?

The staff crunch at eateries is so bad that restaurateurs have had to cut back their operating hours
By Rebecca Lynne Tan, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2011

Do not be surprised the next time you go into your favourite restaurant and see its owner clearing tables.

Restaurateurs here are facing such severe service staff crunches that some are having to double as runners, delivering food to tables and helping to clear them.

Some have also had to limit operating hours or close off seating sections to cope with the manpower shortage.

When LifeStyle visited newly opened bistro-restaurant The Dempsey Brasserie in Dempsey Hill two weeks ago, the owners were seen pouring drinks behind the bar counter and clearing tables.

Opening hours have been cut too – it is open only for dinner on weeknights, but all day on weekends.

Says the restaurant’s co-owner Terence Tan, 40: ‘I can’t even begin to open for breakfast or lunch on weekdays – we just don’t have the capacity to, in spite of having advertised for staff.’

Over at two-week-old eatery Wild Oats at Punggol Park, its chef-owner Willin Low, 39, had to enlist the help of five friends last weekend to clear tables and serve food. The group, which included bankers and marketing managers, worked an average of five hours each night over Saturday, Sunday and Monday night.

Chef Low says: ‘We probably need about 15 service staff to run our Punggol Park outlet smoothly, but that weekend, we had only eight wait staff.’

He adds that he had to close a third of the 300-seater restaurant because of his staff shortage.

F&B players blame it on the tight labour market.

Mr Andrew Tjioe, executive chairman of the Tung Lok Group which employs about 800 staff, says: ‘We are experiencing full employment (in the market) now, which makes it difficult to find staff. It was tough in the last couple of years with the opening of the integrated resorts, but it is just as bad now.’

Chef Low says: ‘Everyone in the industry is fighting over the same number of staff.’

The service sector foreign worker quota, where foreign workers can make up only 50 per cent of the company’s total work force, does not help, nor does the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) recent increase of the foreign worker levy and qualifying salaries for the S Pass and Employment Pass, say restaurateurs.

Foreign worker levies now start from $180 for skilled workers and $280 for unskilled workers, up by $10 each.

Qualifying salary threshold for S Pass applicants increased 11.1 per cent, while the qualifying salary thresholds for the Employment Pass (EP) were raised between 12 and 14.2 per cent across the three EP categories.

Mr Keith Loh, 37, who owns restaurants such as Bedrock Bar and Grill and Oriole Cafe and Bar at the Pan Pacific Serviced Suites in Somerset Road, says: ‘The increase squeezes our operating margins and we find it hard to transfer the costs to the customer.’

Adds Tung Lok’s Mr Tjioe, who says he will still hire foreign workers because he has not much choice: ‘It increases my costs, but it doesn’t change the way I hire.’

But MOM offers some relief for pass renewal. Its spokesman says: ‘Employment Pass and S Pass holders affected by changes to the qualifying salary criteria in July 2011 will be granted a renewal of up to two years if they renew their passes with their current employers.’

That might be good news for operators. But getting the passes renewed is not always easy, they say.

Mr Loh tells of one of his baristas, a Nepalese whom he had trained from scratch, who had his S Pass renewal rejected after working with the company for two years. The barista, who had won a local latte art competition, had to be let go.

Restaurants lament how well-trained staff, who have been with the company for anywhere between two and six years, have also had work pass renewals rejected, which then leaves them having to retrain new staff from scratch.

Restaurateurs say that when they renew work passes, it is because they deem the worker to be good, otherwise there is little incentive for re-hiring them.

MOM says it reviews the eligibility criteria for work passes from time to time. Changes were made in recent years to motivate employers to reduce their reliance on low-cost, low-skilled foreign workers, invest in productivity and improve the quality of their foreign manpower.

Companies can log on to its online Employment/S Pass Self-Assessment Tool (sat.mom.gov.sg) to check if their potential employees meet the requirements.

Finding Singaporeans for the job comes with its own set of challenges.

Says The Dempsey Brasserie’s Mr Tan: ‘There is a distinct lack of passion among Singaporeans in becoming service professionals. The root cause is people’s perception of service professionals. But being a server does not equate to being a servant.’

Operators point out that low pay could also be one reason it is tough to employ Singaporeans. Operators say staff no-shows, especially among Singaporeans, are common – they almost expect their employees not to show up for work. Some might work for a week and disappear without a trace.

The MOM suggests that F&B employers looking to recruit approach the relevant Continuing Education and Training (CET) Centres for job placement services, as well as career centres at Community Development Councils (CDCs) and the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i), which provide job-matching services for unemployed Singapore residents.

F&B players hope more Singaporeans will consider going into the profession, and learn the ropes and rise through the ranks from the bottom up, just like in any other trade.

Mr Loh says: ‘It takes just as much skill and professionalism to be in this industry as any other.’

Still, in spite of the staff shortage, new restaurants continue to sprout like mushrooms.

And with high rental overheads and operating costs, a new restaurant cannot afford to wait for an optimal number of staff before it opens.

Mr Tjioe adds that the Tung Lok Group, like many other restaurants, opens its new restaurants even when it is under-staffed.

He says: ‘If we have to close a section, we will do that so that we can cope with the service.’

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