Bad hospitality: the fight for legal wages in cafés

Its food is innovative, its coffee one of a kind. Most importantly, it is cool. It has exposed brick walls. Hanging decorative lights. There is just the right amount of potted greenery in the corner, and a salvaged tea cup filled with succulents next to the salt and pepper on each table. Many of Melbourne’s cafés follow a well-worn theme – including underpaying their staff.

A little over one year ago, I traded seven years in hospitality for a job in administration at my university. Before this, I had worked several jobs in food and beverage service at chain outlets, cafés and one restaurant. I had never been paid the award rate and at all but one venue, never been paid penalty rates either. Most hospitality workers will tell a similar story. In 2017, a survey of 624 hospitality workers by United Voice Union estimated that 76 per cent were being underpaid. Young people are the most vulnerable, and international students are affected disproportionately. Wage theft is in the bones of the industry.

Readers may have seen Barry, a popular brunch eatery in Northcote, in the media cycle recently. For those who haven’t, Anna Langford was a casual employee at the café who had her shifts cancelled after voicing concerns about her rate of pay. She and other front-of-house staff were being paid a flat rate of $18 per hour, with no penalty rates on the weekends – less than the price of Barry’s spin on avocado toast. Under the award rate for casual food and beverage attendants, their minimum rate should have been $23.51 for weekday shifts and $28.22 for weekends.

Anna initially tried to arrange a group meeting between herself, nine colleagues, and the café’s owners. When this proved unsuccessful, she asked about her pay directly and had her upcoming shifts cut over a string of text messages, ending with the familiar ultimatum ‘we tell you if we need you’ (read: never again). Four others have since been fired.

Barry’s owners initially told the ABC that they ‘had a look on Google’ to find the minimum rate and thought that it was $18. Staff were entitled to a free meal and coffees, the owners said, and the workers had agreed to their rate of pay, as enshrined in a nebulous paper agreement signed by all employees. But free lunch cannot make up the difference between a below-minimum wage and the award rate, and the agreement just meant that workers at Barry had a fifteen-minute break during a shift lasting up to 10 hours.

If all of this is sounding a bit familiar, that’s because it is. Barry is just one of several high-profile cases of wage theft to have cropped up in recent years, joining luminaries like Chin Chin and Vue de Monde. Last winter, George Calombaris’ face was taped to every telephone pole in Brunswick, after the celebrity chef and restaurateur was alleged to owe staff across his restaurant empire up to $2.6 million in unpaid wages. In fact, the national broadcaster was already planning their series on the exploitative nature of the industry when it picked up Anna’s story.

And so, in the nature of present-day protest, #boycottbarry was born. Negative reviews started flowing in on Google, Yelp, et al. and Anna’s online petition quickly gathered 3,880 signatures, prompting the Fair Work Ombudsman to investigate the café. Barry’s denouement saw the owners promise to reimburse all staff and raise their wages (although they also threatened to sue Anna and her other ex-colleagues if their ‘harassment’ continued, despite the fact that they have no grounds to sue for harassment, and as a business would be unable to sue for defamation ).

Chin Chin and Vue De Monde are also under examination by the Fair Work Ombudsman, after their respective share of bad publicity. Chin Chin’s owners have agreed to back pay $9,500 to former bartender Sorcha Harrop, after she applied to take the restaurant to court over her unpaid wages. George Calombaris has committed to repay all staff and encouraged the submission of claims for any lost wages.

On this sort of case by case basis, greater media coverage and resulting public discomfort can create change for staff at certain venues. But it is hard to say whether the unfolding of these cases is really felt throughout the wider world of hospitality. Bad pay is so systemic that it is not only accepted but expected by workers, especially in smaller businesses, where exploitation goes unquestioned and unnoticed to the public eye.

Perhaps most importantly, then, is that staff at other places will feel encouraged to speak up for their rights at work, just as staff at Barry were inspired to question their employers after reading about Chin Chin, Vue de Monde and George Calombaris’ restaurants. ‘It was exciting,’ Anna told me, ‘to see hospitality workers, who often feel too scared to speak out, not putting up with such awful treatment by these expensive, glamorous joints.’

Still, the responsibility should not be on workers to change the industry, café by café. Union groups and hospitality staff are calling for the criminalisation of wage theft, so that employers will be deterred by penalties greater than a slap on the wrist and mandatory back pay.

Unions also played a significant part in planning the campaigns mentioned in this article, liaising with the media, creating the hashtags and organising demonstrations. When Anna and her former colleagues protested outside Barry on 23 April, union members were there with them, standing behind a ‘take wage theft off the menu’ banner. Hospo Voice, a fledgling auxiliary body of United Voice that has been established for Victorian hospitality workers, mobilised their supporter base and spread news of Barry throughout hospitality and union social media networks. Hospo Voice is also behind the Rate My Boss app, a post-Chin Chin invention that allows workers to warn each other about bad employers, as well as praise good ones.

Too often, questions of pay are raised quietly; a shrug, incredulous laughter, resounding ‘oh wells’. Always between payees and never with a manager. Hospitality employees should feel safe and confident to raise concerns with employers, and no-one should be made to feel disposable. Melbourne’s food and drink culture is lauded widely, but most of the people behind it are unable to enjoy its benefits.

While writing this article, I often found myself going to type the words ‘at least’. At least some businesses have requested information on their legal requirements from the Ombudsman. At least some sites are being investigated. Not all venues underpay their staff, withhold penalty rates, or pay international students $8 an hour. At least some do the right thing. It’s true, of course, but it doesn’t make things any more palatable. All workers deserve to be paid legally. The least we can do is talk about it.



Cat McLeod

Cat McLeod is an editor and research assistant at RMIT University. She is on Twitter @acloudcat

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