Outback chef Madushka Dilshan Perera has been head chef at Longreach’s Birdcage Hotel for more than two years.
Long-term hospitality staff are as rare as hen’s teeth in outback Queensland.
- Families are being broken up between countries due to long delays in processing visas for skilled migrants
- It could take more than six months for the government to deal with a backlog of almost a million unprocessed visas
- Business owners say it’s rare to find workers who want to stay in remote communities
When Sri Lankan chef Madushka ‘Max’ Dilshan Perera moved to Longreach in 2020 to work in a local pub, his skills were not taken for granted.
The chef started a weekly night ‘Sri Lankan Curry Night’ which has become a local institution.
Mr Perera wants to stay in Longreach long-term and raise his family there.
“I love this town and I love to work here,” Mr Perera said.
“My whole life is here, everything I bought, the toys for my kid, it’s all unpacked and in the house.
“Everything I worked for is here.”
But the outback chef has spent much of his time in Australia in limbo, trying to get visas for his wife and two-year-old daughter to join him in western Queensland.
Forced to wait while the borders were closed, Mr Perera’s family applied for their entry visas in March this year.
Mr Perera hadn’t heard anything from the government since April, which left him worried about his future.
“I work here, I go home, I’ve got no one. Last week I got sick and I had no-one,” Mr Perera said.
“Just doing FaceTime every night and after the phone call I start crying because I miss my daughter.
“We became a family because we need each other and right now I don’t have anyone and same for them as well.”
After the ABC spoke with Mr Perera, questions about his situation were put to the Department of Home Affairs on Monday morning.
That afternoon, after months of waiting, his family were granted their visas.
Mr Perera said he was already trying to arrange flights to Longreach so they could be reunited.
‘We don’t seem to be able to deliver what we offer them’
The news is a boost not only for the young dad, but also for his boss.
Birdcage Hotel owner Gavin Ballard said it was extremely rare to find staff who want to stay long-term in remote outback towns.
“It takes a special person to come out to the outback and to work, so when you get someone who wants to stay as a business owner you certainly want to look after them and do the right thing by them,” Mr Ballard said.
“A lot of people like to go to the coast.
“We’ve had our trials of chefs who come this way and get job offers and they just go back to the coast, which is why we went the sponsored way.
“We’ve got a couple more guys here doing the same thing.”
Mr Ballard said if Mr Perera had left his job, the position would likely be empty for several months.
“You start all over again, the process doesn’t happen overnight, ” Mr Ballard said.
“If this is going on not only here, but with other businesses, we’re all going to struggle.
“We want to get skilled people out here, but we don’t seem to be able to deliver what we offer them.”
Thousands more waiting
The extreme pressure on Max and his family has been relieved by the sudden issuing of the visas.
But the Restaurant and Catering industry Association says they are many more people still living in limbo due to issues with skilled migration programs.
“There are many stories that we’re hearing about are families that are broken up, people trying to get into the country, very long delays, but the biggest issue that we have is that there is no communication,” CEO Belinda Clarke said.
“That’s the hardest thing, for people to be able to plan and understand what’s happening. Will I get a yes or a no? But there’s no communication.”
More than 56,000 skilled workers entered Australia in the last financial year on the same temporary skill shortage visa as Mr Perera.
But federal government data shows it’s taking between six months to two years to process visas for the families of skilled regional workers.
The Restaurant and Catering industry Association says there are more than 900,000 visas waiting to be processed by the Australian government.
In a statement, a Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said the demand for skilled workers and processing current visa applications is a priority.
“The upcoming Jobs and Skills Summit will provide the opportunity for meaningful consultation with industry stakeholders, to address labour shortages and ensure Australia’s economic recovery from COVID-19,” a spokesperson said.
Ms Clarke — who met with the office of the minister for immigration Andrew Giles this week — said it could take more than six months for the Albanese government to work through the backlog.
“We are so far behind in this processing, that the light isn’t clear of when we’re going to get through this, it’s going to be a good six months to a year [until] we’re really going to be able to get a clearer picture,” Ms Clarke said.
“[The government] is not happy, they know there’s a problem, they are trying desperately to find the solutions and they certainly weren’t expecting it to be such a huge amount that they had to process.
“They are certainly focused on it and trying really hard looking at ways they can get through this, but it’s not going to be a problem that’s fixed in the short term.”