Your daily coffee — at what price?
by JOZICA KUTIN
8th March 2021
IN EARLY FEBRUARY, café and restaurant workers in Adelaide’s Chinatown started protesting about wage theft and unfair working conditions.
The public protest was in response to a video recording of a young worker asking her boss to pay her what she was entitled to — the recording then shows an alleged assault between the worker and her employer.
Needless to say, it sparked the protests.
We have all heard about wage theft at some of our most well-known restaurants (and other large companies) in Melbourne, which led me to wonder — what is happening in our own backyard?
We use our consumer power to support businesses and industries doing the right thing — whether they use free-trade coffee, free-range eggs, or discounts when you bring your own cup.
But what about the more obvious issue of treating the often-young workers that serve us and make our coffees also ethically (and legally) by paying the right wage?
We all want to support our local businesses — there are 190 registered food businesses in Manningham.
Wouldn’t you prefer to support those businesses doing the right thing?
What is wage theft?
Wage theft is basically not being paid what you are entitled to as stipulated under your relevant industrial award.
It also includes underpaying penalty rates, superannuation, overtime and other entitlements.
Making unauthorised deductions from an employee’s pay is also considered wage theft.
It is a “practice” found in businesses big and small.
The practice is so extensive that it has become some kind of warped business model — a business model based on exploiting people — in particular our young and vulnerable people.
I spoke with Tim Kennedy, the National Secretary of the United Workers Union (which covers hospitality workers).
He said the problem is the norm in the hospitality sector — which employs mostly young people.
“What we found over a long period of time is that wage theft is not an aberration it’s a systemic operational tool.”
How has it become the norm?
Mr Kennedy said: “This was less of a problem about a generation ago — when unions had right of entry and could check that workplaces were doing the right thing.
“Once these rights were removed there were no checks.
“So no one’s been checking for a whole generation and that’s why we have the problems we have now.
“Now it’s a race to the bottom.
“We’ve seen what big businesses have done — they’ve set up systems to systematically steal wages from their employees.
“It’s a sophisticated well-resourced and super profitable system.”
Warrandyte is not immune
It is everywhere.
Sometimes — despite all the fresh air, wildlife and majestic gum trees — bad things happen in Warrandyte too, just like everywhere else in Melbourne and beyond.
The experiences of local young people shed a light on what has become the norm in Warrandyte and surrounding areas.
However, some Facebook users were shocked to even think that this could be happening in Warrandyte.
“I would expect they all pay the correct rate”, said one person.
“Is there any reason as to why you suspect they aren’t?”, asked another.
Even council expects businesses to be doing the right thing.
Manningham Mayor, Cr Andrew Conlon said:
“We expect all businesses, including restaurants and cafés, to comply with the requirements of the Fair Work Act 2009, which include fairly paying employees at a rate no less than the national minimum wage.”
Despite expectations, wage theft is happening.
Meanwhile comments (public and private) were posted about young people’s experiences.
As one parent said:
“It is the norm it seems, to not have staff on the books and to pay below minimum wage.
There are also no penalty rates paid.”
And a young person wrote:
“I don’t want to say it publicly from fear of losing my job.
They don’t pay weekend or holiday rates, and don’t like it when we take breaks.
They didn’t pay me for my trial shift.”
And another young person said:
“I used to get paid $8 an hour.
People are in such denial that it would ever happen it Warrandyte.”
Even people with extensive hospitality experience have rarely worked for venues paying the award rates.
“I worked in Hospo for 15 years and I think I only got paid the legal wage at one café.
I worked in a few Warrandyte cafes and restaurants and all paid cash in hand and nowhere near the correct amount.
One Warrandyte café even paid me $11 an hour, but being 17 at the time, you don’t really think to report them or tell anyone.”
Fear of losing their job, not knowing what they should be paid, compounded with living in a small town makes standing up for yourself difficult.
And if you do ask questions, it has been people’s experience that their shifts have dried up.
Said one local: “If the employee does question pay or conditions, suddenly they have no more shifts as there are 20 other unsuspecting keen-as kids wanting a job; they just keep turning them over.”
And by another person, “Unfortunately I doubt very much will change as there are always so many kids trying to find work, that they’re easy to replace.”
What should a young person be paid?
Minimum wages are covered in the Hospitality Industry (General) Award.
There are different pay rates if you are 19 years or younger.
The Fair Work Ombudsman has a pay calculator so you can check what you should be getting.
Employers are allowed to pay you more than the minimum rates.
If I am under 16 and work as a casual at the “introductory level”, I should be getting $12.40 per hour for hours worked before 7pm, Monday to Friday (the evenings attract an additional $2.31 per hour), Saturday the rate is $14.88, Sunday it is $15.63, and public holidays $24.80.
If I am an adult, aged 20 years or older, then the introductory rate is $24.80, $29.76 on Saturdays, $34.72 on Sundays and $49.60 on public holidays.
The introductory level is for the first three months of employment — the absolute basic pay rate, otherwise the minimum rate for an adult employed as a casual (Level 1) is $25.51 ($20.41 if you are employed part- or full-time).
Thereafter, the rates increase depending on your age, your qualifications and the hours and days of the week that you work.
You can see how it can be confusing for young people — especially for a 16-year-old who is starting their first ever job.
And you should get paid for a “trial” shift.
“I worked countless trial shifts over 15 years of hospo jobs and never saw a single dollar for it.
“Hopefully times have changed now,” said one local person.
Unfortunately, things have not changed.
What does it teach young people?
If we accept wage theft in our community, if we accept it as a “they all do it” business model, what are we teaching our young people?
That exploitation is ok.
If you say something, you will lose your job, you will ruin someone’s “business”, you won’t get a good reference.
Silence perpetuates exploitation.
Silence perpetuates injustice.
We teach our young people to be silent in their very first workplace, what will happen in other workplaces, at school, at university, in the family, and in their intimate relationships?
Do we want them to stay silent when things are not fair?
When they are being exploited?
When they are being controlled for fear of the consequences?
I suspect not.
What young people can do
The United Workers Union has developed tools for people in the hospitality industry.
Mr Kennedy said there are two tools available, the Hospo Voice Mobilise App and Fair Plate.
“The Mobilise App is a pay and conditions checker.
“So you can enter what you’re getting paid and see if you’re being paid correctly.
“The app was launched at the end of 2020 and we want young people to get on board,” Mr Kennedy said.
He said it is about empowering young people.
“The power imbalance makes it all the worse for young people.
“So the tools we have developed in Hospo Voice aim to educate young people about their rights in the workplace and how they can deal with that power imbalance.”
The other tool the UWU has set up is Fair Plate.
“On this website, and through the app, hospitality workers can rate places where they work as to whether they respect workers’ rights — it’s a reputational tool.”
He said you can also use this website to find places that are doing the right thing.
“If their first model of the workplace is exploiting you — and this is your first exposure to the job market — it’s a bad exposure.
“Hospo Voice is an advocacy and education initiative and we’re hoping that young people can take some agency through these online tools,” said Mr Kennedy.
Last year the Parliament of Victoria passed the Wage Theft Act (2020) (due to come into effect on 1 July, 2021.
Cr Conlon said Manningham Council is aware of the new Act.“We will work with the Victorian Government to communicate and promote the legislation among local businesses and networks in Manningham,” Cr Conlon said.
How effective will this Act be?
There are potential problems with the Federal Government’s response to this issue.
At the state level, having a criminal response to wage theft, as opposed to a civil response, requires a higher burden of proof.
Mr Kennedy said: “It remains to be seen if a Wage Theft Commission at a state level can be effective, but it is a clear indication from government that wage theft is a really big problem that needs a response.”
Let’s hope the new laws do make a real difference to the working lives of young people.
It is clear that it might cost businesses more to pay staff what they are entitled to, and therefore might cost customers more — paying a fair price for fairly paid work.
But the cost of not doing so — especially for our young workers — is far greater.
Links and resources
Download the Hospo Voice app and read their blog posts for more information:
Fair Plate website – write a review of your workplace; see if your local café is listed as a fair place to work and eat: fairplate.org.au/
Link to the Fair Work Ombudsman to find out the rights and responsibilities of employers — especially for young workers and students: www.fairwork.gov.au/find-help-for/young-workers-and-students
Find out what the pay rate is using this Pay Calculator by the Fair Work Ombudsman:
A guide for employers employing young people:
The Wage Theft Act (2020) is available at:
www.legislation.vic.gov.au/as-made/acts/wage-theft-act-2020 or www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdb/au/legis/vic/num_act/wta202021o2020153/