‘Foreign cooks’ solution doesn’t fix labour problem, say restaurateurs

Bernama pic.

PETALING JAYA: Restaurant associations have welcomed the human resources ministry’s proposal to allow them to hire foreign chefs to prepare dishes from their countries of origin, but ask how this will solve the pressing issue of labour shortage in the industry.

This comes months after the ministry proposed a blanket ban on foreign workers at restaurants across the board starting next year.

Malaysian Muslim Restaurant Owners Association (Presma) president Ayoob Khan Muhamad Yakub told FMT that Putrajaya should work on finding a solution to encourage more local manpower, rather than look at ways to still assimilate foreign workers.

He added that restaurants under Presma already served authentic foreign dishes, whether the chef who prepared them was local or foreign.

“This ‘foreign cook’ solution does not address the real problem here. Indian Muslim restaurant chains already serve authentic Indian food.

“The issue here is that most locals are not willing to work for us on a long-term basis. This is what needs to be solved.

“We can’t afford to keep changing chefs and losing customers because our service will eventually become inconsistent.

“This is our biggest problem. Many restaurants have already closed down because of this,” Ayoob told FMT when contacted.

This follows reports over the weekend quoting Deputy Human Resources Minister Mahfuz Omar as saying that restaurant owners would be given leeway to hire foreign cooks but only for the purpose of preparing traditional dishes from their country of origin.

Stressing that this was only a proposal and nothing concrete had been decided, he said while head cooks could be hired from foreign countries, their assistant chefs must be Malaysian.

“(This is) so that they can learn from the foreign cook. But if preparing Malaysian cuisine, why must we hire a foreign cook?” Mahfuz said.

Human Resources Minister M Kulasegaran previously announced that all restaurants in the country would have to recruit only locals as cooks beginning next year in order to reduce dependence on foreign labour and to ensure the “quality” of local food.

He backtracked on this after widespread protest from restaurants and consumers, saying it was “just a suggestion”.

This was not applicable to foreign food restaurants, high-end restaurants and five-star hotels, which required specialised cooks, he said.

Meanwhile, Malaysian Indian Restaurant Owners Association (Primas) president T Muthusamy said Putrajaya should consider training programmes for locals to work in the restaurant sector now that the Nepali government had stopped sending workers here.

Speaking to FMT, Muthusamy said this was one of the many short-term “simple and straightforward” solutions the ministry could take to safeguard the industry from “slow annihilation”, as many businesses were already facing losses and considering closing shop.

“The government’s concern about providing opportunity to locals in the restaurant sector is commendable.

“But based on the current situation of the desperate need for proper manpower in the restaurant sector, an immediate solution is needed to safeguard the industry from a slow death.

“In the current situation where locals don’t even want to work as cashiers or in the front line in restaurants, the deputy minister’s comments about recruiting locals as assistant cooks will not solve the issue. Our locals are very choosy.”

He said it was impractical to expect that they could fulfil the immediate need, adding that restaurants needed foreign workers in order to “survive right now”.

“Give us the leeway to hire foreign workers as staff now, and later we can work together on a practical long-term policy that is acceptable to both sides,” he said.

Last year, there were 1.8 million foreign workers, with 250,000 in the service sector including in restaurants, an increase of 80,000 workers between 2010 and 2017.

Kulasegaran previously said the government would review foreign worker agreements with all source countries in order to reduce Malaysia’s dependency on them.

In March, Immigration Department director-general Mustafar Ali said immigration rules stipulated that foreigners could only work as cooks.

The Licensing of Hawkers (Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur) By-Laws 2016 require that all hawkers be Malaysian.

Restaurants and coffee shops are not allowed to hire foreigners as front-liners.

The Penang state government has prohibited foreigners from working as cooks at hawker stalls since 2014 in an effort to protect the “heritage” of its local dishes.