‘Your shift tomorrow has been cancelled pending further investigation from today’s incident involving yourself sitting on a chair behind the bar.’
Those are the words sent by email to a Sydney-based hospitality worker by their employer, who later fired them after the ‘investigation’ process had ended. Fired, for sitting on a chair when the bar was quiet, and no customers could even see them sitting down. The hospo worker posted a screenshot of this email on Monday on The Sydney Bartender Exchange, writing ‘if you have time to lean, you have time to clean…’ – a mantra that has been drilled into most every hospitality worker who has worked the industry long enough.
Between being fired for the most ludicrous reasons and in the most hurtful ways and employers expecting us to undertake pointless tasks like cleaning down alcohol bottles that were cleaned only last week, working hospitality can be one hell of a lesson in humiliation and monotony. It is not an exclusively Australian story, either. I’ve worked hospitality in both Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, and can personally witness that I’ve been fired at will in both countries, without adequate reasons given and little to know compassion shown by my employers.
When I worked for a popular rooftop bar in Fitzroy, around seven years ago, my employers fired me on Boxing Day for turning up to work late exactly once. I was asked to ‘come into the office’ by two managers who gave me no warning or chance to bring a support person. They me fired on the spot. I walked out trying to hold back tears as I had no idea how I was going to pay rent the following week.
A couple of years later, at a restaurant in Auckland, I came back from my break and my boss informed me that someone who had previously worked for him was coming back. He fired there and then. Just like that, my entire was income, gone. I went to the closest bar and drank myself into oblivion. Addiction rates are very high in the hospitality industry, and for very good reason. A recent West Australian study found that hospitality workers are the most likely to abuse prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Between the relentlessly long shifts, inconsistent work hours, abuse and harassment from customers and even co-workers, the low wages compounded by wage theft, and job insecurity, some of us drink or/and use drugs to cope with what can be summed up in one word: exploitation.
Much like addiction issues, mental health issues have also reached epidemic level in the hospitality industry. A recent study conducted by SuperFriend found that 68 per cent of Australian hospitality workers had experienced mental health issues directly related to working in the industry. Mostly, it was abusive and physically violent customers who were found to be the root cause of our mental distress. In New Zealand we have publicly declared a mental health crisis in the hospitality industry, with big names like chef Monique Fiso speaking out about epidemic levels of depression in the industry and the negative impacts of a ‘harden up’ culture which is pervasive in restaurant kitchens. Fiso spoke about this culture, saying,
It’s almost worse to show emotion, especially as a woman – you got crushed more for showing any kind of vulnerability. You could have been having a really hard time of things and you have to not show it at all, which makes it worse.
In Melbourne, the Hospo Voice Union surveyed hundreds of workers in 2019 and found that nine out of 10 had been sexually harassed on shift and 20 per cent had been outright assaulted. This is a horrific indictment of our industry, reflecting the reality that the majority of employers aren’t taking our safety and well-being seriously. In my sixteen years working in the industry, I have never worked for an employer who had a robust anti-sexual harassment policy. I actually have PTSD flashbacks to some of the assaults and the harassment that I’ve survived while working on shift and attribute in part my depression from the amount of abuse I’ve been subjected to in the industry.
Fed up with this treatment, in 2018 I founded a union called Raise the Bar and now support hospo workers to understand their rights and take action against employers who behave illegally. Through this work I’ve talked to worker after worker who’s worked shifts of ten hours or more without proper breaks. I’ve gone over timesheets that documented a chef working sixty hours in a week with only a couple of 15-minute breaks the entire time. Most hospo workers will tell you that lack of breaks is normalised in the industry. Yet, it appears we can be fired just for sitting down.
Workplace fatigue is a major cause of workplace accidents and even death. An Australian Governmental inquiry found that being tired at work was the equivalent of being drunk. As hospo workers we are often forced to come in to work no matter how sick or injured. Just as I was writing this article, a hospo worker reached out to me in a Facebook direct message. This is what it said:
I slipped my lower back disc quite severely and had a physio’s note to back it up to have minimum 2-3 weeks off. I got given 5 days and was made to come into work.
I could barely walk and had to sit on a chair in the office (which was down a massive flight of stairs). It 1000% prolonged my injury had I just stayed at home and rested as advised.
This is the everyday reality in our industry, but the times they are a-changin’.
All over Australia with the support of unions such as Hospo Voice, workers have been taking on and taking down their dodgy employers. They’ve been speaking out about epidemic issues such as sexual harassment and wage theft. Workers have been outing their employers for wage theft such as MasterChef’s George Columbaris, whole stole $7.83 million from his workers through underpayments. Hospo workers telling their stories about wage theft has, in part, led to Victoria finally passing wage-theft laws that could see employers facing ten years’ imprisonment for stealing off their workers. Previously, wage theft couldn’t be criminally prosecuted.
In Aotearoa, hospo workers with the support of Raise the Bar have been speaking out in the media and raising awareness about our conditions. We are also collectively calling on our government and MPs to enforce the employment laws we already have, and stand with hospitality workers by calling out our industry for exploitative and illegal practices. After all, we serve their morning coffee and pour their Friday beers. They owe it to us, to stand with us.
The actions we take today can ensure that younger workers coming up after us do not have to suffer the injustices and exploitation that we have endured in the industry for decades. They deserve better. We deserve better. We need more and more hospitality workers finding the courage to speak out publicly about the epidemic levels of abuse, harassment, wage theft, and exploitation that we are endure day in and out. Creating this awareness means we have a very real chance of transforming our workplaces from sites of trauma and exploitation to spaces where we feel safe, respected and valued for the skilled work we undertake every single day.
Image by Caroline Attwood