Hospitality wage theft in the city

By David Schout and Meg Hill

Hospo Voice has continued to expose city-based hospitality employers underpaying their staff as the Fair Work Ombudsman conducts investigations into exploitation exposed by the union last year.

On January 14 Hospo Voice shared an online ad for a kitchenhand/dishwasher by Treviso Bar & Dining in the city, highlighting that the pay rate was under the legal award.

By January 17 the employer had edited its advertisement, raising the pay from $20 an hour to $24.34 an hour. 

More than 40 restaurants and cafes on popular dining strips Degraves St and Hardware Lane were raided by Fair Work before Christmas. 

The Fair Work Ombudsman acted on various tip-offs, including an investigation and campaign by Hospo Voice and United Voice and reports through Fair Work’s anonymous reporting tool.

Thousands signed a Hospo Voice petition demanding action against Degraves St venues after union members held a Halloween-themed wage-theft protest.

“Wage theft is a universal problem across the state but the CBD has been a place where we’ve uncovered some of the worst examples,” United Voice Victorian assistant secretary Ben Redford said.

“Wage theft is the dominant business model in many parts of the hospitality industry. This industry relies on workers feeling vulnerable and too scared to speak out.”

“If these workers weren’t so vulnerable, this whole business model would collapse.”

Details of charges from the December 11 audits are yet to be released, but Ombudsman Sandra Parker said the searches were part of a directed effort to target popular food hubs.

“Our audits have established a link between prices and wage underpayments and it is clear that the true cost of cheap food may be the employees’ lawful entitlements,” Ms Parker said.

Hospo Voice’s online platform for hospitality workers to rate their workplaces lists 617 venues in the CBD – with 25 per cent rated one star and 28 per cent rated two stars.

 “With several higher education institutes located in and around the Melbourne CBD, a large proportion of students live and work in the area,” Ms Parker said.

“Our inspectors will educate workers about their workplace rights and empower them to seek help with any workplace issues.”

The raids follow a string of penalties against CBD restaurant and retail outlets in 2018, including cases where employees were paid as little as $11 an hour.

The state government made a pre-election promise to crack down on wage theft, with proposed laws ensuring guilty parties could be jailed for up to 10 years.  

A Fair Work spokesperson told CBD News that hospitality workers were a “major focus” of its work and said it was working on preventative as well as punitive measures.  

“We have a strong emphasis on ensuring vulnerable workers are aware of their workplace rights,” the spokesperson said.

This includes an immunity to report workplace exploitation even if they have breached visa conditions.

“Visa holders should also be aware that in line with an agreement between the FWO and the Department of Home Affairs, they can seek our assistance without fear of their visa being cancelled, even if they’ve worked more hours than they should have.”

Ben Redford said Hospo Voice have a “CBD Hospo Hood action group” that meets regularly to fight wage-theft and other injustices head on in their local community.

“In 2019, we are going to be stepping up the pace even further – exposing many more venues who are stealing, big and small, as well as whole streets at a time,” he said.

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