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Illustration by Elsie Dusting

If you’re reading this, you’re most likely a student. And if you’re a student, there is a good chance that you have, do or will work in the hospitality industry while studying. Along with retail, it’s one of the few feasible job prospects that can be accommodated around full-time study. And it can be a great experience: meeting people who you otherwise never would have, prolonged post-shift drinking sessions in which stories are shared and life lessons taught. I personally found this to be the case, especially in my twenties. I learned a lot from the opportunities I’ve had working as a waiter and a barman, and have many fond memories. However, this same industry is one where systematic worker exploitation and wage-theft is endemic. Many will know what I’m talking about: not having penalty or even base award rates paid, setting up or closing outside of the nominal shift hours, managers taking the lion’s share of tips, or worse still, owners taking tips for themselves (a particularly grey area in Australia where tipping is not well established).

And it’s really hard to know how to feel about all of this. Is this fair practise? The generally accepted position is that there are unwritten rules for working in hospitality, which is that it’s often for cash payments below the award wage, without super payments, with each establishment having its own system of divvying up tips at the end of some period of time. Of course, this situation is most often completely opaque; it seems to be the case that none of this is discussed, you figure it out when you receive your first pay or you quietly ask a workmate when you’re polishing glasses. But the general justification for this dynamic seems to be that everyone accepts that turning a profit in hospitality is really, really hard and they simply can’t afford to pay the full-wage to staff. This is the regular industry argument against the validity of having to pay penalty rates in the evenings, on weekends and public holidays. This argument is easy to understand and get on board with. But it’s also a fallacy: it’s not a legitimate business practise– legally or morally– to base your business plan in part around wage theft. This was, as I’m sure many of you are aware, a major preoccupation of the twentieth-century. While I’m sure many restaurant owners wouldn’t recognise the practise in this way, this is in effect what it is.

There is another dynamic at play: these jobs, casual jobs, are precarious by nature. There are very few protections for casual workers and those in hospitality are generally regarded as disposable. As Noam Chomsky outlines: “If workers are insecure they won’t ask for wages, they won’t go on strike, they won’t call for benefits; they’ll serve the masters gladly and passively”. It’s not that the cafe down the road is in the same league as Monsanto in terms of evilness, but the sum is that you can either accept the unspoken agreement or remain unemployed. Without meaningful income protection or universal income scheme, most will take the job. You have little choice. Like I mentioned, it’s hard to know how to feel about this. You might see the job as transitory until your degree is finished and not care so much. On the other hand, you might be so grateful to have a job that it feels rich to want more (ie. the minimum wage). In any event, this situation is so entrenched that the devaluation of hospitality staff is reproduced by those staff themselves towards others. I’ve heard workmates in the past say that we weren’t worth the penalty rates, that we didn’t deserve them. Once an oppressive force manages to have its oppressed thinking contrary to their own best interests, something is seriously wrong. Let’s remember: the minimum wage as outlined has been determined by an independent body as to what one needs to be compensated considering the work being done, the time or day it’s being done, and the costs of living in Australia. So, why feel bad about wanting the minimum wage?

Having long-since left an employer who grossly and systematically underpaid their staff, I came to this conclusion: that I worked hard, that I did the work and that I should have been paid for it. After undertaking some investigation as to where I stood, I approached my former employer. I must say, I was terrified. I dispassionately pointed out the “mistake” in my pay and requested that it be rectified. And they did. While there is this weird “mutual agreement”, there is a legal one detailed on Fair Work website. At the end of it, I received what amounted to almost 11% of what my total pay should have been. Can you imagine landing your first job after uni, signing a contract, and receiving your first pay 11% less? You would point out the discrepancy. That’s a significant amount to not be paid, especially when you’re on the minimum wage. In my case, I must admit to feeling underwhelmed after it all. I had hoped that as well as seeking some personal retribution, that this business owner would reconsider their practise, or even just feel ashamed. But I feel that systematic wage-theft really is a part of their business plan, into which they account for one employee every five-years putting their hand out. Whatever they had to pay me, and the time spent to reconcile the situation pales compared to the thousands saved from all the others.

It doesn’t have to be like this. My position is this: if you engage with staff in a meaningful way from the start, your business will reap the benefits many times over in comparison to what’s involved in undercutting them. I say this because it’s happening where I work currently. Once I was taken on, the owner took the time to sit with me, outline what they expected of me and what I could expect of them. Not only did he outline my pay, he even printed out the relevant award for me and told me whom to contact if I thought my pay was not in line with it. This is best kind of managerial manipulation: I now feel like I want to do well for them. By focusing on their actual business activities instead of what they can get away with from their staff, I’d hazard a guess that they will be more profitable than spending all the time and energy in manipulating their staff and constantly retraining due to higher staff turnover. By humanising their staff rather than treating them as an input of production, by recognising that we are different to the fridge or the meat slicer, they will get more out of us. To those of you who are under the unspoken agreement, I urge you to investigate your rights and claim what’s yours. If we continue to accept this paradigm then, like the workmate who says we aren’t worth the minimum wage, we inadvertently reproduce the devaluation of ourselves and support this exploitation. If you don’t put a value on yourself, no one else will. The more of us who reject it, the less tenable the situation becomes.

Tags : capitalismexploitationhospitalitywagesworkplace
Richard Ferguson

The author Richard Ferguson

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