Home | Australia | Everyone I know who works in hospitality has been exploited. That needs to change | Chad Parkhill

Everyone I know who works in hospitality has been exploited. That needs to change | Chad Parkhill

One of my formative experiences in the hospitality industry was of being exploited. 18 years old, fresh out of a small country town and studying at university in Brisbane, and to support myself (or, if I’m being honest, to defray the costs of my parents’ support), I got a job as a dish-pig and general hand at the local football club. I was paid less than the minimum wage – cash in hand, of course – and would have to front up to the office to collect that cash weekly from one of the club’s managers.

One week, while we were in the office, one of the managerial duo started berating me about my work ethic. “What we ask you to do isn’t hard work – it’s not like I’m asking you to suck my dick before I give you this money,” he said, in a way that made it plain to me that he would very much like me to do just that. I left the office with my meagre wages in hand, fuming with rage and humiliation.

In the 16 years since then, I haven’t encountered any other employers who have implied that they’d like me to perform fellatio on them but I have encountered plenty more who seem to believe that they can get away with other forms of exploitation. The most recent was a former employer who seemed to believe that he had no obligation to pay superannuation, or to pay out my leave balance at the end of my employment. When I told this employer that I would approach the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Australian Taxation Office if the outstanding sums weren’t paid, he said, “Good luck with that,” and hung up on me.

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The experience took me right back to the scene of that first manager’s office, and brought back that hot mixture of anger, hurt and shame. But this time I knew that I wasn’t entirely powerless. Within the week I had contacted every former employee of his that I knew and had asked them to investigate their super balances with a view to taking the matter to the authorities. Not much later, I discovered that an ABC journalist was working on a news story about superannuation theft in the hospitality industry, so I contacted her with my experience. I agreed to go on record because by that point I had finally broken the spell of the Stockholm syndrome that many Australian hospitality workers feel about their profession. (The resulting news article and follow-up television coverage certainly changed the owner’s tune, and he has now appointed a new bookkeeper and accountant to make a plan for the payment of monies owed.)

The reality is that exploitation of all kinds is rife within Australia’s hospitality industry. Many employees are young and ill-informed about their workplace rights – and the perception that hospitality jobs are a temporary gig while you study or work towards something better doesn’t help pierce this veil of ignorance. An abundance of cash going through the till makes tax avoidance through cash-in-hand payments easier for businesses to get away with. (Many hospitality venues run two sets of books – an “official”, confected set that gets presented to the tax office, and the real set that records the business’s actual expenses and profits. Some are even brazen enough to store these records together and label them as such.) Even the tip jar isn’t safe, with employers regularly using it as a kitty to cover the cost of breakages, or simply not distributing the funds.

The Fair Work Ombudsman’s own numbers indicate the scope of the problem: the hospitality sector constitutes 7.2% of Australia’s labour market, yet was the subject of 39% of the anonymous tip-offs the FWO received in 2016-17. Of all of the hospitality workers I have ever spoken to about this subject, not one has said that they have always been paid correctly by their employers. This is of course anecdotal evidence – but during my 16 years in the industry, I have met hundreds of hospitality workers. We talk to each other. Pay and conditions pop up frequently in conversation.

My own experience has been one of underpayment and exploitation by people I considered until recently friends and mentors. It was something I kept quiet about for all sorts of reasons: Melbourne’s hospitality scene is small and well-connected. You feel grateful for career opportunities; you don’t want to betray friendships; you don’t want to seem ungrateful for the days when staff drinks flowed and the good times rolled on.

There’s also a strong workplace culture in hospitality that inculcates and rewards a stoicism that verges on masochism – the industry venerates those with the ability to work hard for hours on end without a break, who can pull double shifts or “clopens” (closing one night and opening the next morning). Combine this with the sense of discretion that comes with looking after strangers’ needs, and the consequence is an unofficial code of silence. In my own case, that could only be maintained by unconsciously denying two simple truths: that anyone who pays you less than they legally owe you is stealing from you, and that anyone who steals from you isn’t your friend.

Wage theft and working condition scandals have rocked the reputations of some of Melbourne’s largest hospitality empires recently, and I’m certain that these stories are only the first of many that will play out over the coming years, thanks to the efforts of the hospitality union, United Voice, which has played a prominent role in bringing the issue out in the open. Policymakers are now responding to pressure to criminalise wage theft and other forms of worker exploitation.

These initiatives cannot succeed, however, without the support of the public. Enlightened consumers in Australia care deeply about the provenance of their food and drink, but don’t necessarily want to know about the working conditions of the chef that cooks their free-range, ethically slaughtered pork belly, or the waitstaff who pour their biodynamic, preservative-free wine. Thanks to tools such as Hospo Voice’s Rate My Boss, consumers now have access to what was previously inside information about the working conditions at their favourite local cafe or restaurant. The question is whether the public will join us in speaking out against wage theft – or if the promise of cheap coffees and Uber Eats dinners will maintain the culture of silence that exploits Australian workers every day.

Chad Parkhill is drinks columnist for Guardian Australia

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