Slipping through the cracks: visa hospo workers relying on Foodbank services

Before COVID-19, The Good Grub Club in Daylesford, country Victoria, was serving 30 hot, nutritious meals a week at the Uniting Church hall to people who needed some food assistance and social interaction.

Then in March, demand grew sharply from 30 meals a week to 350. The charity adapted swiftly to COVID-19 by serving takeaway-style meals in hampers.

Andrew Matthews, owner of Holyrood House, Daylesford, was one of scores of hospitality businesses in the town to respond to the charity’s SOS call for help.

“I spent the first lockdown cooking six days a week,” says Andrew.

When people collected their food hampers from the hall, they were given a bacon and egg roll or a cup of soup. It was at collection time that Andrew noticed legions of out-of-work holiday visa hospitality workers queueing for food. Dozens of chefs, waiters and farm workers from overseas were stranded in the tourist town because work had dried up due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Andrew said backpackers from Europe who would normally find an abundance of fruit picking work in regional Victoria started to filter down to places like Ballarat, Bendigo and Daylesford where there was typically always lots of hospitality work.

“By the time they arrived down here there was nothing for them either, so they were stranded and couldn’t find work anywhere,” says Andrew.

So Daylesford’s hospitality community banded together to help their ‘brothers in need’. Food growers, which usually supplied the local restaurants, were asked to donate their fresh produce to the charity. Andrew also reached out to other accom providers in the region and asked them to donate portion control jams and mini toiletries, which they were unable to use. These items along with staples: bread, milk, sugar, tea, cereal and a can of beans or soup, were put into 150 hampers, which were delivered weekly.

When regional Victoria was sent into a second lockdown (Stage 3 restrictions) on August 6, Andrew and the club’s committee members ‘rallied the troops’ again as demand skyrocketed once more. Andrew said they were chasing more volunteers to help cook meals and pack hampers, so he approached some dispossessed hospo workers he knew and asked them to donate their time.

“For us it was a fair exchange to make sure they got fed, they got toiletries and in a couple of cases, we we’re able to outreach to people and say, ‘You’ve got some accommodation, can we put some people with you – and they’ll do some work for you in exchange?’”

Accom News spoke to Bryn Overend, principal lawyer, Social Security Rights Victoria (SSRV) about the legal predicament this cohort of workers. Bryn stressed that each person’s legal situation will be different depending on their visa, how they originally came here, and what work they’re entitled to do.

“But generally speaking, there is a large cohort of people who are temporary visa holders who are not eligible for JobKeeper, or other social security payments, so those people are forced to rely on their own means, their own funds,” says Bryn.

“Red Cross and other emergency relief has been available to certain people, but in terms of government funding, there are limited options.

“With (international) border closures and limited flights, returning to their home countries can be prohibitively expensive for many – it just essentially is no longer an option, or a very difficult one to make.”

Andrew said the plight of Daylesford’s holiday visa hospitality workers was a “complete eye opener” for he and his partner Keith. The couple were finding it tough to keep their multi-award-winning business running during COVID-19.

“It makes it very real when you start complaining about your own situation – and while we’re challenged by our own situation, it puts it into perspective,” says Andrew.

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