Restaurants and hotels in tourist resorts are paying thousands of pounds in golden handshakes to attract chefs from India and South Africa amid extreme staff shortages.
Perks of some jobs include £85,000 salaries, £5,000 sign-on bonuses, family holidays and even puppy “settle-in” days, after Brexit and Covid left the sector with record vacancies.
At its peak in December, there were 7.8 positions open per 100 hospitality jobs, according to the Office for National Statistics — the highest level on record. This fell slightly to 7.5 per cent in March, but hospitality vacancies are still higher than any other industry, with an estimated 164,000 posts unfilled.
At Vale Holiday Parks, in Aberystwyth, Wales, owner Thomas Scarrott has hired five chefs from India this year — after struggling to find staff.
For each overseas chef, it costs him £5,000 to £7,000 in visas, travel and recruitment fees — but Scarrott, 40, says he was left with no choice. At a recent local recruitment day, just two people showed up, despite 100 expressing an interest.
“People believe that we’re trying to bring people from overseas because it’s cheaper. That is not the case at all, we pay the same wages. By the time you have paid the agency fees and the fees to the Home Office for the sponsorship licences it works out a lot more expensive to do it this way,” he said.
Now, he is launching a curry menu to make the most of the “absolutely blinding” skills of his new recruits.
According to data from COREcruitment, an international recruitment agency, chef roles advertised at £45,000 a year would have been £35,000 two years ago and £28,000 in 2015.
Krishnan Doyle, its managing director, said: “We have offices in Holland and France and they are actually seeing a benefit at the moment because chefs from countries such as Italy who used to spend six months in the summer in the UK are now going there.
“In the UK, lots of places are offering retention bonuses if staff stay with them for three months, 12 months, or incentives like holidays. One of our clients is giving staff a day off to spend with their new pet.”
Last week, a restaurant in south London posted an advert online saying it was looking for a head chef, who would be paid £85,000 a year, including bonuses. The candidate should already be a head chef elsewhere with a “stable CV”, it said, as well as have a “high presence” on social media.
Doyle said: “The highest sign-on bonus we’ve seen for chefs has been £5,000.” But, elsewhere, perks can be even more lucrative. “One operations director for a hotel group who started two months ago got a salary of £130,000 and a £15,000 signing-on bonus,” Doyle said.
Salaries for kitchen staff are so high that some overseas applicants have questioned whether the UK job offers are a scam. Staff at COREcruitment had to phone one chef’s grandmother to persuade her that the role was genuine because it was 20 times his salary in Cape Town.
Across the country, waiting staff and bartenders are highly in demand too.
Big Mamma, a group of Italian restaurants in London, is offering a £1,000 joining bonus for bartenders and a £1,000 referral bonus scheme for friends they help to recruit.
TGI Fridays is handing £1,000 welcome bonuses for chefs — who do not need any previous experience — for roles on Jersey.
At Starbucks, £500 joining bonuses are being paid in some cases while Hyatt hotels are offering £500 sign-ons to kitchen porters.
Some venues have resorted to poaching staff by handing out business cards while eating in restaurants or even sticking up posters in staff smoking areas.
In the fishing village of Gorran Haven, in Cornwall, Craig Holman, who manages the Llawnroc Hotel says the industry is in peak “transfer season”.
“Other than wages and flexible working, we are coming up with incentives such as holidays at another resort for staff and their families,” Holman, 52, says. “It’s something that we have to do to be able to sell the job now. It’s like they’re interviewing you because you need them and they know that.”
His attempts to lure in staff comes against a backdrop of EU chefs from countries such as Spain, Italy and France leaving Britain post Brexit, while others left the industry when venues shut for months during multiple lockdowns.
With the summer approaching, there are fears that job shortages could hit holiday plans, with restaurants and hotels already having to turn away customers.
There are approximately 4.2 vacancies per 100 employee jobs across the UK. According to the job website Adzuna — which the ONS is using to calculate vacancy figures — there are more staff shortages in tourist hotspots. In Dorset, there are 7.3 openings per 100 jobs, with the figure dropping to 5.9 in Devon.
In the Cairngorm National Park, near Aviemore, Scotland, The Highlander Hotel, also recently hired a chef from India. Normally, up to 35 staff members would be working there — the figure stands at 13. A lack of staff has meant that, on occasion, bookings have been turned down.
“I’ve worked here for 31 years and my manager has been here for over 45 years and we have never experienced anything like this,” says Elaine MacRae, the deputy manager.
“The guests are extremely good and understand the pressure we are under but we are not always able to give them the service we would like to because we can’t always go in and do the rooms every day,” she adds.
Across the UK, more people are sponsoring staff to come from abroad.
Since January 2021, EU nationals have been unable to travel to Britain under freedom of movement and now need to be sponsored in the same way as non-EU nationals.
However, where previously only highly skilled chefs on at least £30,000 could be sponsored, UK businesses can now do this with any type of chef from abroad, with similar changes happening in other industries too. Home Office immigration figures for last year showed there were 239,987 work-related visas granted, 25 per cent higher than in 2019, the last full year before the pandemic.
Doyle, the recruiter, described being able to hire from other markets as a “lifesaver”, with hires coming from South Africa, Thailand and the Philippines.
Harriet Mansell owns two restaurants in Lyme Regis, Dorset, but does not have enough chefs — and is having to open for less hours than she would like. “Our focus is quality over quantity — we’re not just going to open with a half-hearted offering,” she says.
Affordable housing is also a problem. “Holiday lets have pushed the prices up. I’m having to live with my parents in Sidmouth . . . If I can’t live here, I’ve got no hope of attracting other people to the area — there’s just no property available,” Mansell adds.
According to Adzuna salaries have risen by 20 per cent for baristas in the past year, 19 per cent for hotel receptionists and 17 per cent for waiters.
At Hawksmoor, the upmarket steakhouse chain, managers are doing a “huge amount of training and development”, says Will Beckett, its founder.
“We are taking people on that perhaps traditionally we would not have done because they have a lower level of experience. we’ve taken a chance on people with the right mindset and just trained them up ourselves”.