CONTENT WARNING: Economic Inequality
This article comes after another high-profile chef, Shane Delia, joins the list of leading industry personalities accused of stealing wages from their employees. I watched on as MasterChef’s George Calombaris gave his public pleas, and if I digested anything it is that now is no time to listen to apologies from corporate celebrities. We must centralise the voices and experiences of over 500 individual workers and their families affected by systemic patterns of wage theft. If George reads this article and remembers one thing, it is that he is welcome to come over anytime for a hearty (vegetarian) roast.
Often as young workers, we might feel that it is easier to just move on from employers who say that we are helping their small business and then are blatantly underpaying us. We are treated as valuable employees one day and disposable workers the next. Our struggles are reduced to temporary, inevitable experiences that somehow toughen us up and prepare us for the ‘real world’. I gradually spoke up, not because I suddenly woke up and realised what my rights were, but because I saw patterns of exploitation in our menus, in our streets, from 7/11’s to vegan cafes. Despite the fact that I’d worked in the same industry for a longer time period than my university degree, like many other young workers I considered my work temporary and did not consider joining a union. By reassuring our co-workers that we all deserve fair pay and good working conditions, we can together play a role in normalising paying workers fairly.
Wage theft manifests in a variety of forms, from underpaying wages, penalty rates, superannuation and overtime to making unauthorised deductions. Wage theft reduces consumer demand by cutting incomes and reducing discretionary spending, and its anti-competitive behaviour allows businesses that break the law to gain a competitive edge over those that comply with the law.
Currently, the fines for ignoring requests for back pay and not paying up are too low and are skewed in favour of bosses. We resort to using the media as a tool to redress injustice instead of the law. Reduced power to unions and the limited resources of the Fair Work Ombudsman mean that costs involved in prosecution can outweigh the likelihood of discovering evidence of stolen wages and superannuation. Non-compliance is addressed with such impunity that our minimum standards are next to redundant. Ultimately, it has become part of a thrifty business model for businesses to underpay employees and assume any potential requests to repay wages or pay fines as part of its operational costs.
Data collected by Industry Super Australia reveals that almost one in two of us are underpaid in superannuation. According to a 2019 Report into Young Workers experiences in ACT workplaces released a few weeks ago, 62.4 per cent of respondents stated that they experienced underpayment in the last 12 months, and 38.4 per cent of these individuals said that they would not attempt to recover stolen wages out of fear of losing their jobs.
Even with the committed organising, campaigning and strong backing from unions, we cannot expect just outcomes within a system built on the exploitation of young workers, temporary work visa holders and unprecedented corporate avoidance. It also doesn’t help that certain groups and political stakeholders continue to advocate for laws that threaten the right to strike. Their attempts actively discourage young workers from joining a platform that aims to provide them with a voice and protection against injustice.
If over time an employee laundered $7.8 million from their employer, I suspect that the consequences might differ and result in greater penalties and a criminal conviction. If wage theft is often accidental, why have most of us never experienced overpayment? George Calombaris admitted that he’s not shying away from the ‘mistake’, and yet he also admitted that he asked for a pay rise and received every cent. The MasterChef judge also explained on ABC’s 7:30 Report that he and his co-workers lacked the necessary experience back then, but the truth is that no business starts off as being experienced. I suspect, like anyone who has climbed up the food chain in hospitality, George invested long, difficult hours as an apprentice chef, not always receiving what he was owed and performing surplus duties to what was expected of him. It’s not as complicated as making gravy to know that following the law and treating workers’ rights is important.
There are some promising changes to look out for. Recently proposed ACT laws hope to restore workers’ accessibility to seek justice quickly and simply. These laws would clarify referral powers to allow state and territory magistrate courts to hear small claims matters. The changes seek to address some of the barriers involved in hearing matters at the Fair Work Commission or Federal Court, often involving a lack of resources, high costs and lengthy delays.
For the sake of all the underpaid workers out there, for the young female, LGBTQIA+, non-binary, migrant and non-native English speakers who face even higher rates of discrimination and poor treatment at work, for those who try to speak up but struggle to be heard, let’s together call it out for what it is. I refuse to hear corporate celebrities substantiate their ‘accidents’ and protect their reputations. By standing together we can amplify the voices of our co-workers loud and clear, making sure we receive the justice we deserve.
Who to talk to if you think you’re experiencing wage theft/know someone who is currently?
Contact the Young Workers Centre
Check out up-to-date fact sheets and articles, find out about upcoming RAW (rights at work) workshops and events, hear about the latest campaigns and use the online chat at www.youngworkerscbr.org.au/advice
Join the Facebook group and chat with other young workers: Young Workers CBR
Call: 02 6225 8104
The Young Workers Centre provides free, confidential information and support to workers aged under 25 years.
ANUSA Legal Service
Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Call; 6125 2444
Fair Work Ombudsman
Know a workplace that isn’t doing the right thing, but don’t want to get involved? You can report it anonymously.
Australian Capital Territory Human Rights Commission
Call: 02 6205 2222
Why you should join a union ?
While young workers disproportionately experience wage theft, they are the least likely to hold a union membership. Particularly given the casual and unreliable nature of the work young people engage in, it is important that young people are aware of the role of unions. By standing in solidarity with other workers, union members can feel less isolated and better able to have their voices heard.
If you are not a union member, you can contact the Australian Council of Trade Unions at www.actu.org.au or UnionsACT to find out more information
United Voice (a range of industries including hospitality, health and education)
Member contact line: 1800 805 027
Fax: (02) 6273 1628
Address: Unit 5, 2nd floor 40 Brisbane Ave, Barton ACT 2600
EMAIL THE ACT OFFICE > email@example.com
SDA (Retail, Fast Food and Warehouse)
Phone: 02 9281 7022 or 131 732
RAFFWU (for restaurant and fast food)
Get in touch via the website or Facebook
This is Australia’s first digital union’, offering a range of online services and starting up campaigns such as ‘Respect is The Rule’, for $10 a month. This is only available in Victoria, but you can follow their Instagram for recent campaigns and stories.
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