Would you like minimum wages with that?

Despite working in eight different cafés and restaurants, in multiple Australian cities, over nearly a decade, I have never been paid the correct hospitality award rate for my work, and I know of very few people who have. In my most recent role, however, for the first time, I was paid under the national minimum wage (the lowest rate in the award). In response, I joined my union.

In February this year, the union for hospitality workers, United Voice, dispatched a letter to the workplace that underpaid me, demanding the $15,000 I am owed. The Fair Work Commission’s recent announcement that weekend penalty rates in the hospitality, retail and fast food industries would be cut couldn’t have come at a more relevant time for me. But since eighty per cent of hospitality workers don’t receive appropriate penalty rates to begin with, few may actually suffer a pay cut as a result. The problem in the industry is something else: its culture allows a proliferation of jobs that pay below minimum wage, or cash in hand, or that combine part-time wages and casual conditions.

The hospitality industry is founded on a collective willingness to let things slide. Most people know that $17.70 per hour is the national minimum wage, that their appropriate award rate is usually higher, and anything below is illegal. However, underpaid employees are typically placated until the balance tips that bit too far in favour of the owner, accepting a few dollars less per hour to feel justified in, for instance, not cleaning under the rim of the toilet. I’ve heard this presented as logic from staff members, even though they were not in a position to negotiate their wages in the first place.

Why a business owner would want to procure employees on a low rate and on a cash in hand basis is obvious: they have the opportunity not only to save money on wages, but on taxes. Given the proliferation of circumstances like these, it seems that it is the business owners, and not the workers, who are in solidarity with each other. Such price fixing of our labour requires a response of collective action and an alteration of what we are willing to accept.

Awareness of these problems has grown with recent publicised underpayment cases like Dominos, the rampant exploitation of international workers, young people speaking out in Wollongong and the $2.6 million of underpayments in George Calombaris’s restaurants. These examples, and my own experience, tell us that the underpayment of hospitality workers is not restricted to franchises or students. It’s everywhere and it may not look the way you expect. I won’t name my aforementioned employer, but I will say it is a popular Melbourne restaurant that prides itself on its options for vegetarians and vegans. It’s the kind of place where the barista can casually say to a customer that Malcolm Turnbull is out of touch without risking an awkward reception, and from here on I’ll refer to it as the Brunswick Restaurant.

Why employees in turn will tolerate underpayment is more difficult to dissect; it’s masked as a culture and portrayed as a choice. When a friend finally confronted the Brunswick Restaurant owner about pay, the response she received was along the lines of, ‘this is just how it is here.’ I took a role there on the verge of desperation in mid-2014, because sometimes taking a low-paying job feels like the only option. Listening to some of my grievances, a manager once asked me, ‘If you hate it here so much, why don’t you just leave?’ In hospitality it hangs over us that we are easily replaced.

Despite being legally (and morally) entitled to more, workers will accept low payment if they perceive some kind of fair give and take. At the Brunswick Restaurant there was a hierarchy – one with essential supports of sexism that I hadn’t experienced since I was a teenager. The male staff climbed the ‘ladder’ faster, subsequently earned more on average, and enjoyed special privileges like being taken out for free meals and cocktails. Encouraging such a hierarchy serves to keep a portion of the staff blindly satisfied; they’re important there, why wouldn’t they like it? My evidence is anecdotal, but is supported by other women in the industry (here, here and here) and the Glass Ceiling Index. The majority of the casual workforce, and fifty-seven per cent of employees in the hospitality industry, are women, but the 2016 Victorian Government Inquiry into Labour Hire and Insecure Work found that they receive six per cent less of a premium for casual employment.

Once operating within the culture it is difficult to see outside of it. I listened to my friends say things like, ‘the pay is bad here, but it’s a casual place,’ or a confusing inverse of this, ‘she said she hasn’t seen work from me that warrants a pay rise yet.’ I would ask myself: if everybody else here is more or less content, who am I to think I am worth more money? But as my economic security increased, so too did my objectivity, and the question I asked myself became another: who are they to think any of us are worth less money?

When discussing taking action, another woman at the Brunswick Restaurant said, ‘I don’t want to hurt anyone.’ My initial hesitation to do anything, and occasional waves of guilt, are evidence of the effectiveness of their model. But the pieces of reality began to come together to form an image I could no longer stomach: we were paid a low base rate and paying forty per cent of the menu price for meals and not getting penalty rates, not even for public holidays (watch out for public holiday surcharges – they do not mean the staff are paid more per hour). Working there meant seeing a male supervisor who called me a bitch, bit and licked a female staff member, and shared unsolicited sexual details with multiple others, not only being tolerated, but celebrated. We watched this supervisor stay in the business far too long after complaints were aired, ostracise the woman he assumed spoke out about him (it wasn’t her, it was me), and we were met with a total lack of empathy from the owner. The intersection between poor pay, a lack of respect, and their disproportionate effects on women spurred a shift in consciousness for several of us. Becoming living examples of the sixty two per cent of Australian workplace sexual harassment claims that involve a male perpetrator and a female target, and receiving little support from our employer, were the factors that finally obliterated our tolerance.

United Voice was surprised to hear from me. The restaurant and café industry is difficult to organise, with thousands of different establishments in Melbourne alone, low retention rates and low wages. It makes up the smallest proportion of the union’s membership base. Several hospitality workers I have spoken to needed clarification on what exactly a union is, or used the terms Fair Work and union interchangeably. This distinction is an important one. Fair Work doesn’t advocate for either employees or employers, and will take you down the path of resolving differences independently, followed by mediation – a process in which neither party is obliged to participate. Because the issue we are dealing with is a structural and cultural one, Fair Work simply doesn’t provide the avenues to change it. Workers need to develop their own standards around what is acceptable, lower their tolerance for what is not, and take action when the minimum isn’t met. At the very least employees need to be talking to each other, rather than allowing this culture to filter from the top down.

The Brunswick Restaurant raised everyone’s pay to nineteen dollars an hour after I left, indicating the effectiveness of action. But long-lasting change will involve altering our expectations. For women specifically, this means realising that we are not imagining it: that men are being placed more quickly into ‘skilled’ roles, and are consequently being paid more.

The dissatisfaction that slowly stirred in my own workplace is spreading, and while the problem comes from higher up, each business like the one I worked for is just a microcosm of the system as a whole. Business owners will have no interest in contributing to change unless we make them. As it is, the balance rests in their favour.


Image: Anna Lappé – ‘A higher rate for all workers’

Louisa Buchanan

Louisa is a writer and editor from Geelong, with work featured in SCUM, Overland and Turbine | Kapohau. She likes writing about unspoken culture, things she watches and reads, and feelings.

More by Louisa Buchanan ›

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