Tourism in Revival Mode – Hotels Struggle to Find Chefs

the HRM

In the hospitality sector, which was the hardest hit by the multiple waves of coronavirus outbreaks in the last two years, the recent months have brought some relief as activities are picking up in the travel and tourism sector with the normalcy returning to the sector. 

After seeing record lows in room occupancy rates for the past 24 months, hoteliers are expecting a boom in the upcoming seasons as the footfall of guests continues to grow. But star hotels that accommodate a significant number of tourists, are facing a tough time in finding chefs. Besides other services, ensuring sufficient numbers of chefs is key to the business growth of any hotel as the skilled culinarians prepare delicacies that guests love to eat. 

“We have high expectations in terms of business growth as tourists’ arrival is increasing steadily. But, finding chefs has been tough in the recent days,” said Chudamani Parajuli, HR Head at Soaltee Hotel Limited. The current shortage of chefs, according to Parajuli, is the result of attractive opportunities available abroad. “Many have gone abroad as hotels and restaurant business has entered the recovery mode globally,” he said.

During the pandemic, hotels had no other options to survive than to slash salaries and lay off staff. The measures taken for surviving the difficult phase have led to a reduction in the number of chefs. “This created a huge problem for us,” said Parajuli, who is facing a hard time in finding chefs for Soaltee Hotel. “The demand for chefs is excessively high. The number of star hotels has also increased in the last few years, resulting in a shortage of hospitality employees,” he added.
Nepal received 42,006 foreigners in March, the highest monthly arrivals in almost two years. Last year in March, the footfall number was only 14,977.

According to Lomash Karki, Director of Human Resources at Vivanta Hotel, almost 80 percent of chefs in Nepali hotels, who were laid off after the start of the pandemic, are now abroad for foreign employment. “They are getting a handsome salary in foreign hotels. So, chances are high that most of them are not coming back anytime soon,” said Karki. 

According to him, Vivanta desperately searched for a Pan Asian chef recently, but to no avail. “We then hired a Pan Asian chef from India,” he shared.
HR managers, who talked to the HRM, also said that the retention of employees is another major problem surrounding the hotel business at present. “Even when we find chefs, they quit their jobs in a few months either to join another hotel or to fly abroad,” mentioned Karki.

The shortage of chefs in the country is forcing star hotels to hire chefs from India to lead the kitchens. While HR managers point to the lucrative opportunities abroad as the main reason for the flight of the culinarians from the country, chefs on the other hand different opinions. “The number of chefs in the market is sufficient at present. But hotels always shy away to pay a good amount of money for deserving Nepali chefs. In such a situation, who wants to stay in the country?” questioned Pasang Lama, the former Executive Chef at Summit Hotel.

“For the same position and responsibilities, Nepali chefs are paid only up to Rs 60,000, while chefs from India get up to Rs 300,000. Many hotels even deduct the lodging and fooding expenses of Nepali chefs from their salaries which is not the case for foreign chefs working here. How can this discrimination be justified?” said Lama.

Asking for anonymity, a mid-level chef working at a reputed hotel in Kathmandu claimed that hotels always treat foreign and Nepali chefs differently. “Be it the salary, perks, or other benefits, hotels treat Nepalis and Indians differently. Foreigners are well paid,” said the chef who is looking for opportunities abroad.

Amidst the spiraling Covid-19 crisis last year, the Hotel Association of Nepal agreed on the uniform payroll structure and signed a deal with the unions recently. As per the agreement, all employees working in deluxe five-star (having more than 200 rooms) and five-star hotels will receive Rs 10,000 and Rs 9,000 per month, respectively. Employees of four-star (having more than 100 rooms) and four-star (having less than 100 rooms) will be paid Rs 8,455 and Rs 8,000 monthly, respectively. Likewise, employees of three-star and two-star properties will receive Rs 5,000 and Rs 4,300 monthly, respectively. 

According to chefs, this payroll structure is yet to change. “How can an employee working at Rs 50,000 or even less survive with just Rs 8,000-10,000 a month? There is no welfare for employees. In such a situation, employees are always lured by jobs in foreign lands,” said a chef working at a five-star hotel under the condition of anonymity. 

After the pandemic struck, at least 40 percent of chefs working in star hotels retired, according to Bijay Pyakurel, Head of Human Resources at Hotel Yak and Yeti. “Nepal already had a shortage of chefs. And now, the situation has worsened further as self-trained chefs, who handled most of the kitchen functions of star hotels, have not in the jobs,” said Pyakurel.

To cope with the situation, hotels are looking to hire fresh recruits. According to Pyakurel, Hotel Yak & Yeti has started training freshers in the hotel. “We expect this effort to be fruitful in the coming days. Having said that, retention has been a serious problem for the hotel after the pandemic,” he mentioned.

According to chefs, foreign hotels pay up to five times more than what Nepali hotels offer. But HR managers claim that hotels in Nepal also pay the chefs well. “Of course, foreign hotels offer lucrative salaries. But Nepali hotels have also been paying as per the standard. Here we need to understand that hotels in Nepal are not up to the par to compete with those in the Middle East,” said an HR manager. 

Currently, Nepal has 15 five-star hotels. And despite the pandemic, investors are pouring huge investments into the construction of new hotels.

According to the Department of Tourism, Nepal will have 27 new five-star hotels in operation in the next few years. The department says most of the new luxury hotels will be constructed in Kathmandu followed by Rupandehi. The newly-constructed Gautam Buddha International Airport in Bhairahawa has attracted investors in the hospitality business in the Rupandehi district.The demand for Nepali chefs in Middle East hotels is high as Nepali chefs are less demanding than foreigners. “Nepali get less in comparison to foreigners, but the amount is still higher than what they get in Nepal,” HR professionals at star hotels say.

According to Shishir Khanal, General Secretary at Nepal Association of Rafting Agencies (NARA), the number of bookings for rafting can be compared with the pre-pandemic phase. “This shows the prospect of tourism in the days to come. The sector is reviving, and to accommodate guests Nepal needs additional hotels,” he said. The increase in arrival, according to him, is the result of the government’s new policy to remove mandatory quarantine rules for fully vaccinated travelers. Nepal is among a few countries to ease entry protocols to revive travel and tourism. 

According to Pasang Lama, hotels in Nepal have failed to give a sense of job security to employees. “In the most difficult phase, employees are kicked out. And when hotel business is recovering in a good manner, remunerations are not restored,” said Lama, adding that 30-35 percent of chefs in Nepal have started their own business in the recent months. 

Before the pandemic, Nepali chefs, who worked abroad, after working for 10-15 years used to return to their home country. But such chefs have also stopped coming to Nepal altogether. 

According to HR managers and chefs, it takes at least six months of training to produce a junior chef. But after a few years of experience, they either go abroad or change jobs. The situation will be even worse in a few years, they say.

However, Yuvraj Pokharel, Cluster Executive Chef at Soaltee Gate Gourmet, has a different take on the issues. “There are enough chefs in the market. It is just like there is a shortage in a few categories. There are only a few chefs who have expertise in popular sections,” he said. “There is no competition in the market too. So, how can someone with expertise land a job here? The hotel business is yet to be competitive,” he concluded.

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