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Free plane tickets for bartenders: The plan to solve massive staff shortages

Qantas plane landing at airport
The hospitality industry is facing a worker shortage due to fewer overseas workers as well as many people leaving the industry during COVID. (Source: Getty)

Free or subsidised tickets for working holiday makers, international students and skilled migrants has been floated as a way to attract more hospitality workers to Australia.

Wes Lambert, CEO of Restaurant and Catering Australia, told Yahoo Finance cheap or free flights would help bring more hospitality workers to Australia and relieve the severe worker shortages facing the industry.

He said working holidaymakers, international students and skilled migrants were not returning to Australia as fast as expected since the borders had opened.


The cost of travelling to Australia has been identified as one of the key reasons people are no longer flocking to our shores.

Pre-COVID, Lambert said flying to Australia was relatively cheap for someone on their gap year, especially if they were prepared to buy a multi-stop ticket rather than fly directly to Sydney.

Now that stopovers are no longer allowed under COVID rules, people have no choice but to buy direct tickets.

Lambert said these were often prohibitively expensive, especially when there were now far fewer planes coming in and out of Australia.

“We had nearly 70 carriers coming in and out of Australia pre-COVID: We have less than 20 now.”

Despite fewer planes touching down in Australia, there are still a lot of empty seats on these planes.

“So we could solve two problems in one by making sure that the planes arrive in Australia full,” Lambert said.

Australia’s reputation in tatters

Lambert also said Australia had suffered reputational damage during COVID as an attractive place for people to come and work.

For example, working holiday makers, students and skilled migrants were asked to go home and were not provided with any government assistance during COVID.

“So, this will go a long way in helping with that reputational issue,” he said.

He said Australia was known as “the largest jail in the world” in some places because it was one of the only places in the world that made it illegal for citizens to return.

“It’s those kinds of reputational issues that were splashed on the front page of global newspapers, you know, that aren't going to be quickly forgotten,” Lambert said.

Innes Willox, chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, also said labour shortages and skills gaps were “now a major handbrake right across our economy”.

“Skilled migrants, international students, working holiday makers and business all need flexibility within the migration intake to plug holes, develop local skills and meet the needs of our economy as we continue to train our own workforce,” Willox said.

“Right now, we need more migrants, not less, and we need more agility in our labour market, not less.

“Upending the system and imposing more restrictions will only make Australia a less attractive place to consider to work to fill the gaping holes in the labour market we now have.”

He said issues around exploitation of some working migrants must be addressed, however, but “not to the detriment of the entire program or the vast bulk of employers who do the right thing”.

In the lead-up to the election, Lambert said workforce shortages, industrial relations and cost-of-living issues would be key talking points for the hospitality industry.

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