Food News

The pub test: Should the hospitality industry have mandatory vaccinations?

A recent industry survey found 63 per cent of restaurant operators are in favour of compulsory vaccines for staff. In the kitchens though, opinion is mixed about the best way to balance individual rights and responsibilities.

Junda Khoo, executive chef and co-owner of Sydney's Ho Jiak restaurants. Photo: Supplied

Jia-Yen Lee has just recovered from her first COVID jab. AstraZeneca, if you’re asking. And she says the side effects were like running a marathon while dehydrated. Or hungover. But she’ll do it again. (She has to. Patients need two doses of the vaccine to be fully protected.)

“In hospo, we’re used to battering our bodies. It’s like recovering from a few back-to-back double [shifts] and a big night out,” she says via text. A shrug emoji. “No big deal.”

Lee is walking the talk. After all, the co-owner of Anchovy, an upscale Vietnamese restaurant in Melbourne’s Richmond, also moonlights as a face of a Victoria Council of Social Service ad which encourages Australians to get the jab.

“I definitely don’t have anti-vax feelings, but I was more complacent in June [when the ad was filmed],” she says. The ad was released in July, on the same day as another vaccination campaign by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; both were hailed for their emotive messages that played on the nostalgia of pre-COVID times.

Watch VCOSS’s Back to the Good Things ad below.

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A month later, and Melbourne is in its sixth lockdown, New South Wales is in its second, and the state has just recorded an all-time daily high of 825 cases.

Another vaccination ad dropped on Friday, featuring recognisable restaurant figures such as Neil Perry, Maurice Terzini, Matt Moran and Shannon Martinez. With pictures of fiery woks and eerily quiet dining rooms, it specifically appeals for Australians to “put a jab on the menu”. The messaging from public health authorities and private industry is no longer about eliminating the highly contagious Delta variant, but about increasing the national vaccination rate. It’s the one-way street to the reopening of restaurants.

Watch the “Put a Jab on the Menu” ad below.

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But on the ground there’s division about the best way out of the pandemic. There are two issues on the industry’s mind: mandatory vaccinations for staff, and vaccine passports for diners.

A survey by the Restaurant and Catering Association revealed 63 per cent of operators want the power to make vaccinations mandatory for workers. Fifty-five per cent want vaccinations to be made compulsory for customers. (Interestingly, 120 of the 258 respondents were based in locked-down New South Wales; business owners from Victoria comprised the next-largest group.)

Craig Laundy is a former federal minister for small business. He’s also a hotelier with his family’s business, Laundy Hotels, which has 28 pubs across metropolitan Sydney and New South Wales in its portfolio. Laundy, together with Australian Hotels Association NSW boss John Whelan and Merivale pub mogul Justin Hemmes, has been lobbying state and federal governments to reopen the industry as soon, and as safely, as possible.

He’s resting on the idea of a vaccine passport – effectively, a green pass for immunised workers to return to kitchens, and diners to restaurants.

“We’re suggesting the Federal Government get serious about vaccination passports [for diners and workers] for a period of time that will allow our industry to reopen, and to exercise our duty of care under different pieces of state and federal legislation, without fear of criminal or civil prosecution,” says Laundy.

But mandatory vaccinations have to do more than pass the pub test. For now, the go-to guide on workplace vaccination laws is the Fair Work Ombudsman website, which outlines the “lawful and reasonable test” for compulsory vaccines, depending on the type of workplace and the risk of COVID transmission. Hotel quarantine, for example, is considered “Tier 1” work; health and aged care, Tier 2.

Hospitality is classed as “Tier 3” work, where employees are regularly exposed to customers. But in this category it’s unclear whether bosses can mandate vaccinations for workers. If a restaurant is in an area with low levels of community transmission, it’s “less likely”; in areas with COVID circulating in the community, it’s “more likely”. Murky? You bet. The Fair Work Ombudsman says workplaces should be assessed on a case-by-case basis; employers considering mandatory worker vaccines should seek their own legal advice.

Importantly Qantas, which just announced a mandatory vaccine policy for frontline workers, also falls under the Tier 3 work category. “We’re arguing the case that we need to be viewed in the same way as Qantas,” says Laundy. (It’s a rare case of restaurants seeking to be associated with the airline industry’s notorious cuisine.)

But Angela Knox, associate professor of work and organisational studies at The University of Sydney Business School, advocates a collaborative approach between workers and bosses.

She sees mandates as an unnecessarily top-down measure to increase vaccination numbers amongst hospitality staff. And it’s on bosses to encourage workers to get the vaccine by providing them with information about the current health advice, how best to access the vaccine, and offering leave incentives for workers to attend appointments. And the kinks of the bungled vaccine roll-out could do with some ironing.

“There are three big issues. One is access to Pfizer, because supply hasn’t been available as we would like it. The other is access to a straightforward system that makes it easy for people to make bookings. And third is allowing employees paid time-off to go to their vaccination appointments. That’s particularly important for casual workers, because they may be forgoing work and pay to go and get vaccinated,” she says.

“It’s possible to have the same outcome without making vaccines mandatory, provided there’s an ongoing open dialogue about the benefits: that it’ll protect workers, the business, the economy, and society.”

And it’s a matter of bosses leading by example, too. Ho Jiak’s Junda Khoo oversees 100 staff across four restaurants in Sydney and describes himself as pro-vaccine, but anti-mandate. The key, he says, is to facilitate a workplace culture where staff feel empowered and informed.

“By the end of September, 90 per cent of my workforce will be vaccinated, and that’s without making it mandatory. It’s a matter of educating staff,” says Khoo. He looks to his country of birth – Malaysia – to keep things in perspective.

“In Malaysia, everyone’s fighting to get vaccinated with AstraZeneca, and here no-one wants it because of bad press. But if you can explain that to staff […] They realise it’s [one of the] most-used vaccines in the world.”

Junda Khoo (second from left) with staff from Sydney’s Ho Jiak Town Hall in pre-lockdown times.

(Photo: Supplied)

As for vaccination passports, it’s a no-brainer for Victor Liong. The chef-owner of Melbourne’s Lee Ho Fook has a cameo in the “Put a Jab on the Menu” advertisement – he sees it as a way to leverage his profile for the greater community good. (His Instagram account – you’ll find it under his apprentice nickname @smokeystevenson – has some 11,000 followers.) “If I change one person’s mind, or reinforce one person’s belief, it’s a step in the right direction.”

For the most part, he can’t understand the resistance to vaccination passports, be it for diners, workers or general freedom of movement. While there’s no Australian workplace precedent for mandatory vaccines, there are parallel examples in broader society: parents must provide evidence of their child’s immunisation history to childcare centres, and certain visa applicants undergo health assessments and tests for tuberculosis and HIV.

Liong’s staunch pro-vaccine stance comes from a personal place, and stems from difficult conversations with his parents.

“It’s like they’re in this generation where they’ve forgotten all that’s happened. My dad was hesitant about getting the vaccine, and I’m like: Hey idiot. Your brother died of polio. Don’t you remember that?,” he says.

“I didn’t die of polio because I got the vaccine. My sister almost died of mumps when she was three, because the vaccine didn’t come out until she was four in Brunei. And because I got the smallpox vaccine, my niece doesn’t have to.”

“Because I got the smallpox vaccine, my niece doesn’t have to”: Victor Liong, chef-owner of Melbourne’s Lee Ho Fook, has a staunch pro-vaccine stance.

(Photo: Supplied)

Vaccine passports for diners are being rolled out across the world: New York City, Quebec, Italy. Catherine Chaucet, co-owner of Melbourne’s La Pinta, says the green-pass scheme in her native France has encouraged young people in particular to get jabbed.

“They don’t have to think about it anymore. They get vaccinated, then they can get back to normal life. […] My brother was so emotional when he was able to go back to restaurants.”

But she doesn’t think a similar scheme will work Down Under. “In France it’s necessary because the French are culturally less compliant than Australians. But here, it’s not necessary. Most Australians will go and get vaccinated.”

Then there’s the question of how, if implemented, passports will be rolled-out, enforced or checked at restaurants. The Federal Government may not have the strongest track record of nationwide apps (COVIDSafe, anyone?), but it does retain most people’s immunisation history via Medicare and myGov. Meanwhile, QR check-in codes at restaurants and retail shops are administered by the states, and it remains to be seen how privacy laws will allow individuals’ medical histories to be shared across government apps.

And ultimately, the responsibility of checking diners’ credentials will fall to front-of-house staff. Craig Laundy says this is simply an extension of current hospitality COVID-safe practices; Chris Wu, co-owner of Sydney izakaya Nakano Darling, disagrees. “Getting people to check in is a pain in the butt already,” he says. “Getting diners to flash their vaccination passport – that’s another level.”

And to round off the negative team’s argument, vaccination passports are simply not viable for restaurants. Last week, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Laundy and co were lobbying for a September return of restaurants for fully vaccinated customers. But considering NSW’s latest case numbers, Laundy concedes they’ll be lucky to expect an October reopening. Financial feasibility is a numbers game, says Junda Khoo.

“My staff are asking, are we going to reopen? I said, there’s no point. It’s only 50 per cent of the population that’s vaccinated [with one dose],” he says. “Sure, 90 per cent of my staff are vaccinated, but the volume of traffic that’ll be coming through the doors will be so low, it’s going to be more viable to stay closed.”

Inside Sydney izakaya Nakano Darling. “Getting people to check in is a pain in the butt already,” says co-owner Chris Wu. “Getting diners to flash their vaccination passport – that’s another level.”


For Jia-Yen Lee, her resistance to vaccine passports is ideological. She wants diners and hospitality folk to frame their vaccination decision not in terms of what they stand to personally lose or gain, but as a community duty to protect others who, for whatever reason, cannot be vaccinated.

“Your civil liberties are one thing. But you also need to consider someone else’s human right to be safe and protected,” she says. “If you’re anti-vaxx because you think it’s within your civil liberties, then I think you need to reevaluate your position.”

It’s about the carrot, not the stick; but the carrot isn’t a rose-shaped garnish on the plate. “You can’t have special treatment for some, and special treatment for others. I feel everyone needs to be invested together for the greater good.”

As a nation of diners and restaurant lovers, how on track are our vaccination targets? After a sluggish start to the vaccination race, there’s nothing like the uncertainty of lockdowns to push Australians off the starting blocks. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has signalled a 70 per cent double-dose vaccination rate as the magic number to moving out of restrictions. As of yesterday, half of the population has had its first dose, while 28 per cent are fully vaccinated. If the momentum continues, 80 per cent of Australia’s adult population (aged 16 and over ) will be fully vaccinated in December.

For many in the industry, the coming of summer, and the potential end to snap lockdowns, will be a welcome reprieve. And for the hospitality folk who feel like they’ve endured a marathon for the past 18 months, they can return to what they do best – running restaurants.

This story was updated on 21 Aug, 11.06am to reflect New South Wales’ new daily record of COVID-19 cases.

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