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Ukrainian refugees could fill COVID-19 staff gaps, say UK hospitality firms
Margaryta Bogatyrova, 27, stands outside Mallow restaurant in Borough Market, London, where she works as a waitress after fleeing her home in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, July 9, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Emma Batha
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Britain's short-staffed hospitality sector - still reeling from COVID-19 - urges government to expand sponsorship scheme for Ukrainian refugees
Hospitality sector keen to help refugees
Hotels can offer accommodation as well as jobs
Businesses frustrated with government red tape
LONDON - When Ukrainian refugee Margaryta Bogatyrova arrived in Britain she hardly knew a soul, but within a fortnight she had started work as a waitress in London's hip Borough Market restaurant quarter.
The 27-year-old former travel agent is among a slowly growing number of Ukrainians finding jobs in Britain's hospitality industry, which is on its knees after the COVID-19 pandemic and desperate for staff ahead of the summer season.
"Most Ukrainians want to work. We don't want charity," said Bogatyrova, who comes from Ukraine's eastern Donbas region.
But her job at Mallow, an airy vegan restaurant next to the capital's historic Southwark Cathedral, offers more than just a salary.
"Work takes my mind off what's going on at home," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"I call my dad in Ukraine every day and always hear explosions in the background. It's terrifying."
Unlike its European neighbours which have waived entry rules for Ukrainians, Britain has insisted on security checks and visas. Those who do not have family in the UK must also find a person to sponsor and house them.
The country's hospitality sector - which says it can provide tens of thousands of jobs and accommodation – is calling on the government to allow businesses to sponsor Ukrainians as well.
"While the first priority is ensuring refugees' safety, offering opportunity and hope follows close behind," said John Dickie, chief executive of business group London First.
"Large parts of the hospitality economy have been clobbered by COVID-19 and simply cannot fill all their vacancies. So, there's a really good win-win opportunity here."
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of industry group UKHospitality, said staff vacancy rates had doubled since COVID-19 lockdowns forced hotels and restaurants to close. Some 10% of jobs are unfilled, leaving about 200,000 openings.
Many workers left the industry during the pandemic, she said, while Brexit - Britain's withdrawal from the European Union in 2020 - has made it harder to fix the problem.
Nicholls said UKHospitality members, who range from individual cafes and pubs to large hotel and leisure chains, could provide at least 100,000 jobs for refugees.
A fifth of its 700 members, including big companies like the Hilton hotel group and Bourne Leisure, could also offer free accommodation untied to jobs, she said.
British chef Steven Saunders condemned the government's sponsorship scheme as "slow, restrictive and covered in red tape".
"This is an emergency situation, these people need help. We should be more compassionate," he added.
In March, Saunders launched an initiative called The Odessa Project to bring Ukrainians into Britain and provide them with accommodation and jobs in hospitality.
Saunders, who runs The Willow Tree restaurant near the university city of Cambridge, said the project was supported by 3,000 hotels across Britain offering 14,000 rooms with jobs.
A spokesperson for the government's communities department said there was no immediate plan to introduce a business sponsorship route.
Saunders said the government had told him it did not want to tie accommodation to jobs, partly because of the potential for problems if a refugee wanted to leave their work.
The communities department said in response that it continued to "liaise with businesses and explore options", but did not elaborate.
Nicholls said the industry would ensure that any staff who left jobs tied to accommodation did not become homeless.
Sitting in the dining room of Mallow, Bogatyrova said the visa process had not been easy.
She fled her home in the eastern city of Kramatorsk with a few clothes slung in a small bag after being woken by explosions on Feb. 24 as Russia launched its invasion.
Moscow calls its invasion a "special military operation" to rid Ukraine of fascists, an assertion Kyiv and its Western allies say is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war.
Bogatyrova spent a fortnight in bomb shelters before travelling to neighbouring Poland, which has seen more than 3 million arrivals.
Fearing she would not find work in Poland, Bogatyrova advertised for a British sponsor on Facebook, quickly finding a London couple who helped line up her job at Mallow during her four-week wait for a visa.
The restaurant is part of a vegan dining chain in the capital which is offering Ukrainians help with finding work in hospitality and support with travel from Poland.
"My hosts told me British people could seem reserved," Bogatyrova said.
"But I've been blown away by the love and care I've been shown."
London First chief executive Dickie urged the government to set up a national portal where businesses could advertise jobs for Ukrainians and other refugees, including the thousands of Afghans who arrived last year.
He suggested this could be modelled on a refugee employment platform called United for Ukraine recently launched by businesses in the north of England.
With tourism rebounding after the pandemic and summer bookings up, Dickie said he would continue to press for the introduction of a business sponsorship route, adding there was a lot of frustration with the government's stance.
"We should just be cracking on," he said.
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