After riding out the shocks of the pandemic, Urmil Lamba’s small Indian restaurant had never been busier – but on Sunday night after a bustling service of back-to-back orders, the kitchen was spotlessly cleaned for the last time.

Bhoj Restaurant’s only chef was being called back to his home of India to visit family after more than a year of working late nights, six days a week, in a restaurant battling for staff.

Despite offering subsidised housing, free meals, and plane tickets to travel to Katherine — a Northern Territory town thousands of tourists flock to every dry season – Ms Lamba has been unable to find workers.

“There have been times our chef, [because] he’s doing so many things himself, his hands and arms have had pain and he had to go and see the doctor,” she said.

“There have been days we’ve had to close because we are too tired.”

Advertisements calling on waiters, kitchen staff, chefs and managers to take a job in the restaurant have spanned social media across Australia, popped up in government job search portals, and appeared on a range of job sites, Ms Lamba said.

She has even reached out to migration agents, but her efforts have been futile.

“My main job is supposed to be administration, but we haven’t even been able to find a restaurant manager, so sometimes I help as the kitchen hand or with dishes. Wherever there is a need, you know, you chip in,” she said.

Shrunken pool of skilled workers

Across Katherine, the dearth of workers is putting pressure on a range of industries.

Restaurants and retail stores are turning away eager customers or closing their doors entirely for days at a time, mechanics are building up a backlog of work, and tourism operators are battling amid a huge influx of visitors.

A young man stands in a mechanics workshop in Katherine.
Connor Vincent’s mechanical workshop has been understaffed for about two years. (ABC Katherine: Roxanne Fitzgerald)

Connor Vincent, the owner of Central Motors, routinely works 12 hours a day, six days a week due to the struggle to find staff.

“Since the start of the year I’ve had two people come see me looking for a job, but they didn’t have the skills,” he said.

“Two other mechanic shops in town have shut down … there’s only two of us here and I’d want four more [workers]. It’s been hard.”

NT Chamber of Commerce chief executive Greg Ireland said it was no secret that the issue was not isolated to Katherine — from Alice Springs to the Top End, businesses were getting increasingly desperate to fill vacancies.

“We’ve got a real shortage of backpackers coming to the Territory. And that’s been an issue for some time, predominantly COVID-driven.

“And competition from other states in terms of their activities, particularly in the construction sector, means people just aren’t as available and prepared to move as they used to be.”

Thousands of workers needed to ease pressure

A man sits at his desk.
Chamber of Commerce Northern Territory chief executive Greg Ireland says a longer-term solution is needed to ensure businesses can find staff.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Mr Ireland estimated the NT would need around 3,000 additional workers to ease the pressure, and said the challenges lay in finding workers with the appropriate skills.

Relaxing migration rules would be the immediate way to resolve some of the chronic worker shortages, he said, but “getting kids through VET courses, and upskilling them through apprenticeships and so forth is going to be a longer-term solution”.

“We’ve been talking to the federal government about allowing people on a pension to work and contribute,” Mr Ireland said.

“We’ve also seen the international student market open up through government relaxation of the rules, so those are the things that are making a bit of a difference. 

Issue being tackled on several fronts

Earlier this month the NT government established the Global Worker Attraction Program to deliver marketing campaigns over the next three years and an advisory group, and offered businesses $1,000 for each new employee, which Chief Minister Natasha Fyles said in a statement was “easing workforce pressures in the Territory”.

For Ms Lamba, it is hoped the closure of her restaurant is not permanent.

The restaurateur has set her sights on finding staff in India, but fears visa issues and the perception of crime could hinder progress.

Mr Ireland said the chamber had been working with government and police around crime and antisocial behaviour.

“Housing and cost of living is substantially on our radar as well,” he said.