Lone Star founder deported from Singapore

A founder of the Lone Star restaurant chain was deported from Singapore and fined for working illegally and hiring foreigners without work visas to launch a Kiwi- themed restaurant in the city-state.

The Fern and Kiwi, modelled on Lone Star, promised "the true flavour of classic Kiwi dining" when it opened last September - but by then management were already in trouble after staging an illegal flash-mob haka in Singapore's main shopping street to launch the restaurant.

Shane Hausler, one of five directors of the Lone Star business, went to Singapore to set up Fern and Kiwi but had only a tourist "Social Visit Pass" and was forced to leave. Three others, including two Kiwis, were also refused work visas and sent home.

"Mr Hausler was found to be running the restaurant without a valid work pass while in Singapore and illegally employing three foreigners, including one New Zealand national, to work at the restaurant, " a ministry spokesman told the Star-Times.

"He held a Social Visit Pass, which allows tourists to stay in Singapore for a short duration but does not allow them to work here. Composition fines were issued to Mr Hausler and the restaurant for the employment offences, which have been paid up. The two New Zealand nationals have since left Singapore."

Lone Star director Simon Dunlop said they were the victims of a sudden change in Singapore's employment law, the result of public dissent at the number of foreigners in the republic.

Dunlop said only one New Zealander, on a student work visa, remained on the restaurant's staff - and he'd almost given up on hiring Kiwis to work there. Another director, Steve Ward, said the Singapore Government had "not made it easy".

"Our business relies on the culture of our brand, " Ward said, "and bringing that to Singapore is very difficult when you can't employ New Zealand people."

The Singapore Ministry of Manpower said employers faced fines between S$5000 ($4,800) and S$30,000 ($29,000) and up to 12 months' jail for hiring foreigners illegally, while a self-employed foreigner without a valid work visa faced a fine up to S$20,000 and 24 months' jail.

The Fern and Kiwi offers a surf- and-turf menu, Kiwi wines and beer and New Zealand music on the stereo. In publicity at the launch, Hausler said: "We're stoked to bring a slice of true New Zealand to Singapore."

Ward said it had been tough going, and the business had been caught out by reaction to Singapore's nationalism movement.

New rules force businesses to hire Singaporean nationals before visas are granted to foreigner workers. Foreigners also need a degree from one of the world's top 200 universities, with Singapore recognising only Auckland and Otago degrees as good enough.

Dunlop has resorted to advertising online for graduates to be paid S$700 (NZ$676) a week and enjoy six weeks' free accommodation to work at the restaurant and said near-full employment in Singapore meant it was hard to find locals who wanted hospitality jobs.

The Lone Star chain began with the recently demolished Manchester St branch in Christchurch in 1988 and now has 21 restaurants nationwide; it was established by Ward and Tim Whelan, with Whelan's brother James, Jonny Phillips and Hausler making up a core of five executives who still run the franchise.

The Fern and Kiwi, said Dunlop, was meant to be the start of an Asian expansion. He said Lone Star was committed to staying but might be forced to take on a local business partner.

"Singapore has traditionally been a good place to do business and it still is - but at the moment, it is difficult, " he said.

"We know when you go into a foreign market you play by their rules and show them respect [but] if we had known what was going to happen with this employment law, we may not have proceeded. But now we are there, we will battle it out."

Fairfax Media