Bite the hand that feeds you: fighting wage theft and winning

A couple of days ago, a post went up in my union’s online forum: “Serious question here. Is there anyone who has worked in hospo for more than a year, who -HAS NOT- experienced some form of wage theft / underpayment / non payment of penalty rates/ non payment of super?!”. Having worked in the industry for eight years myself, I didn’t need to scroll through the comments to know that there would be a near unanimous response: lol no. 

But I was glad I did, if only to come across this:

It seems as if hospitality workers are more likely to get struck by lightning than to be paid a legal wage. So how do we rectify this injustice? At the moment, we hedge our bets on a legal strategy to fight back against thieving bosses— criminalisation of wage theft, referral to the fair work ombudsman, and countless court appearances. And we have had some pretty impressive wins in the courts recently— the owners of Barry Cafe in Northcote who deliberately underpaid their staff (and then fired them for asking questions about it) were recently fined $232k. But even in these high profile cases, workers have only partially recouped their losses: one worker at Barry is still owed $12,315.

Labour governments in Victoria and Queensland have succeeded in bringing in new legislation that makes deliberate wage theft a crime. Jail time is now a threat for offending employers in these states, and United Workers Union subsidiary Hospo Voice is pursuing similar legislation in the other states. Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said that the new legislation means that workers now “have the law on their side” — but wage theft has always been illegal, and the criminalisation of wage theft does not change the fact that workers do not and cannot have the law on their side. I know I’m not the first hospitality worker who, owed thousands in stolen wages, has looked into the till at work and imagined the rather different consequences if I were to repay the favour. Yes, we welcome stronger disincentives for thieving bosses, but as we have been largely unsuccessful in defending our legal rights in the workplace up until this point, we cannot kid ourselves that a change in legislation fundamentally changes anything.

The other side to this legal strategy is to name and shame wage thieves in the media. Watching A Current Affair reporters hounding bosses in the street is always going to be pretty satisfying, but we need to go beyond naming and shaming shameless wage thieves to defend our rights in the workplace. Campaigns that appeal to a consumer’s better conscience may strike some fear in the hearts of our bosses, but the threat to reputation alone is not enough to win back our wages. An organised community boycott can force a cafe out of business, but this does not put money back into our pockets. Moreover, when the media fanfare dies away, the same conditions that led to the theft in the first place remain. Because the problem we are facing is not as simple as a few bad bosses choosing to do the wrong thing. We are not looking at a few bad apples, but an entire industry that is rotten to its core.

If we are going to fight wage theft and win, we need to understand why wage theft happens. It should be obvious to us all that despite what the Small Business Council would have us believe, wage theft is not the result of an honest mistake (if the award system is so complex, please explain why I am still waiting to be mistakenly paid above award wage). Wage theft happens because our bosses need to profit to stay in business, they need to compete with every so-called bad apple in the industry, they need to pay us as little as possible to maximise their returns. Wage theft happens because bosses have fundamentally different interests to the workers that they employ. When things go wrong, even a “nice boss” has to put the business first, pay workers a little less — that’s just the nature of our relationship, whether he’s a good guy or not. And when things go right, he is the one that reaps the rewards, while we just plod along on (hopefully) minimum wage. We are never the winners, he is never the loser. Sure, some bosses are worse than others. But at the end of the day, when shit hits the fan, every boss is going to act in their own self interest. And their interest is to make as much money as possible. 

Contrary to popular opinion, hospitality bosses aren’t in the business to feed people — they are in the business to turn a profit. And that profit incentive means cutting corners on workplace safety, skimping on wages and forcing us to work harder by under-staffing (rockstar shift, anyone?). Our work is precarious, it can be dangerous, and it is stressful. We are disorganised and atomised, and we rely on workplace law to protect us from further attacks on our conditions. But this strategy, as the rampant wage theft across our industry attests to, is doomed to fail. Add into that cocktail the sexual harassment that we experience at work, compounded by job insecurity and shit wages, and the need for a strategy that can actually win is obvious. We need secure jobs, we need a living wage, and we need safe workplaces. And we cannot wait for a benevolent boss or good government to hand it down to us. Real change doesn’t come from above, we have to fight for it ourselves.

Boss makes a dollar, I make a dime

The reality is that while wage theft is a particularly egregious and illegal form of exploitation, made more morally repugnant because of its disproportionate impact on young, migrant and women workers, exploitation is the foundation of all profit under capitalism. Only living labour — our labour — produces value in society. Our labour makes profit for bosses.

Working in cafes and restaurants, this has always been obvious to me. Take the barista in a suburban cafe, for example. Her boss buys a coffee machine and grinder, buys the beans and the milk, rents a retail space to put it all in. He employs our barista to make the coffee, and pays her $26 an hour (roughly the award wage for a casual barista, depending on her duties and age). She works an eight hour shift. During this shift, she makes enough coffee to cover the costs of running the business (the rent, the bills, the supplies, any maintenance) and to cover her own wages. Depending on how busy the café is, she might have managed this in the first four hours of her shift.  But she stays at work, and she keeps making coffee for another four hours. The money she makes during this time is called surplus value. It is the value that she creates for her boss, it is how her boss makes a profit, it is why he opened the cafe in the first place. The less her wage costs her boss, the more time she spends making profit for him. So he pays her the legal minimum, and if he can get away with it, maybe a little bit less. The barista working for the nice boss next door gets better pay. But their boss needs to turn a profit too. If the competition between the two cafes heats up, they will probably need to drop the price of their coffee to entice a limited pool of customers. It becomes harder and harder for the nice boss to pay above award wages and stay in business. Our second barista takes a pay cut, or is fired and replaced with one of the many unemployed baristas who are desperate for work. The nice boss steals their wages. The cafe turns a profit, the barista struggles to pay their rent.

Our bosses own the machinery we use, they might even own the land, and they own the materials we labour upon. But none of that produces value. Which is why they hire us. If you take coffee beans and milk and make a flat white from it, you can sell it for more than the beans and the milk cost (it’s one of the reasons so many hospitality bosses offer free coffee and food in lieu of proper wages — the ingredients are not the expensive part of the meal. Unfortunately, I have not yet managed to pay my rent in cappuccinos and knock-off beers). Without our labour, there is no profit for our bosses. But without our bosses, we could still run the cafe. To be honest, most of the cafes I’ve worked in would have been run a lot better if they were run by their workers, and not by some businessmen who fancied an “easy” investment, having never stood behind a coffee machine in their life.

Anarchists and other revolutionary socialists talk a lot about workers seizing the means of production, and this is because the private ownership of the means of production by the capitalist class is integral to capitalist control of the labour process. Capitalists own the means of production, workers do not — that’s why we are wage labourers, why we are forced to sell our labour power as a commodity to the capitalist. Under capitalism, workers cannot afford the raw materials and the machinery that is necessary to engage in commodity production. That’s the nature of our class position. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, 85% of Melbourne hospitality workers had their shifts cut or lost their jobs, and 47% of workers did not have enough savings to cover a month’s basic expenses. Try to buy a $25k coffee machine on $25/hr with no savings and no guarantee of regular shifts and you’ll understand why I’m not about to start my own cafe. And if anyone tells you to go find another job, like Today host Allison Langdon told one of my fellow union members, don’t be afraid to remind them that in that case, they can forget about buying a coffee, drinking in a bar with friends, or eating in a restaurant again. We put the food on their table, the very least we deserve is to be able to put food on our own.

Power in the workplace, not in the courts

We make the profit for our bosses that pays for their fancy cars and their holiday homes. We put their kids through private school, we fund their holidays (on private jets, too). We’re told we need bosses, that they “create jobs”. But when you strip back the ideological justifications, it is obvious that we are the ones that create all of their wealth. We feed our customers, and, ultimately, we feed our bosses as well. And yet they steal from us, they harass us, they fire us for speaking up. They stonewall us, they fight protracted court battles against us that leave us isolated and exhausted, emotionally and financially. Bosses have the money, the weight of ideology, and the law on their side (yes, even when we criminalise wage theft). But we have each other. And together, we do have power. But to realise this power, we must organise collectively, and we must do this in our workplaces.

We do not have power in the courts. Most of us do not have the time nor the energy to fight a legal battle. Those that do take it upon themselves to bravely fight it out in the courts with wage thieves find themselves isolated and exhausted by a lengthy drawn out process. Sometimes the exploitative practices of our bosses turn out to be perfectly legal — just ask the workers stuck on traineeship wages at burger chain Grill’d. Our bosses know this, and so do we. When it comes to our workplace rights, the letter of the law means very little. Particularly if you’re a migrant worker, worried about your visa, or a young worker, unaware of your rights, or not confident enough to take a stand at work. Add into this that most of us rely on references from a previous employer to find new work, and a legal battle that won’t even win us back our wages becomes less and less attractive.

But lucky for us, we do have power in the workplace. Imagine if every worker in a cafe stopped working until they won a legal wage — like the workers in a Perth hotel who walked out when their boss refused to pay their colleague. Imagine if every worker in every restaurant owned by George Calombaris had set down their pots and pans, hung up their aprons, and refused to serve a single customer until every last worker was paid what they were owed. When we withdraw our labour collectively, we get a glimpse of the power that workers hold together. We begin to understand where power lies in society more broadly.

And with this understanding, comes an orientation to struggle that is rooted firmly in our workplaces. When our rights at work are under attack, it will never be enough to make platonic appeals to politicians, or the law — because the very rights in question did not originate in parliament or in the courts. Political rights are not born out of the goodwill and better insights of kindly politicians. Political rights are concessions, and they are forced onto parliaments from without. Our rights do not exist because they were set down on a piece of paper and written into law, they exist because we organised ourselves, and we took them — and then we refused to give them up. And thus without the strength to defend ourselves in our workplaces and in the streets, every historic victory that we have claimed through struggle, every right that we have grasped from the hands of our bosses, and of our governments, can be taken away from us — and the letter of the law, criminal or not, will not protect us. The fight against wage theft will not be won by legislative bodies or criminal courts. The dignity at work that we deserve cannot be granted to us from on high. We must take it for ourselves. And we do it by wielding a power that governments and bosses will never have — our labour, organised. 

There are shining examples of union power in Australian labour history. We are reminded of the immense power that workers hold when we hear about how the union movement came together in 1969 to make the Penal Powers a dead letter, or when the mighty BLF launched the Green Bans movement, and showed us that working class power means the power to resist the destruction of the environment, the power not just to win better wages and conditions, but also to tackle social issues like women’s employment, gay rights and racism. But these incredible victories can seem a million miles away from where we are now, totally out of reach for a young worker washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen for some desperately needed cash in hand. 

The task before us is difficult, yes, but it is not impossible. Chemist Warehouse workers struck in 2019 and won. They won substantial improvements to their material conditions, took up the fight against sexual harassment and secured women’s rights in the workplace. They pushed back against precarious work and outsourcing. Their working conditions were reminiscent of those of many hospitality workers — casual and insecure work, sexual harassment on the job, a massive power imbalance between workers and their bosses. But when workers maintained solid pickets outside their warehouses, Chemist Warehouse couldn’t effectively resupply their retail stores. They had very little choice but to give in to the demands of an organised and united union campaign demanding dignity for every worker.

The terrible wages and conditions facing many workers in the food supply chain, particularly the hyper exploitation of workers from overseas, will also sound all too familiar to hospitality workers. In 2016, 500 National Union of Workers members at Polar Fresh, the major cold storage distribution warehouse for Coles, went on a strike, making use of a boycott that drew on solidarity from other warehouse workers. Coles could not fill the gaps on its shelves. The workers won paid breaks, a pay rise, 120 new, secure jobs, and the right for workers employed indirectly by labor-hire agencies to convert to directly employed, permanent positions. 

When we organise in our workplaces, we show our bosses who really has the power. When we dare to struggle, and we do it together, we can win. And it is not just a victory for an individual worker, not just a court decision that we hope will fall in our favour. It is the inescapable, definitive demonstration of the collective power that workers hold in society. It is the old union adage realised: touch one, touch all. It is an act of solidarity, that protects not only our wages and conditions, but those of every worker we struggle alongside. And it is an example of what is possible, a source of inspiration to workers across our industry and beyond — and a source of anxiety for thieving bosses and their pals in parliament.

We can start small, but we must start in our workplaces. A letter to your boss, demanding better health and safety protocols in the face of a pandemic, signed by every member of staff. A WhatsApp group without the bosses, where you discuss how creepy it is when the owner makes those comments about female staff members, and plan how you will confront him about it together. Deciding to elect a Health and Safety Representative in the restaurant you work, and putting up a proud unionist against whichever shitty candidate the bosses prefer (almost always a middle manager…). Small steps that represent an expression of collective power, that demonstrate the common interest between workers. Small steps towards a better industry for all of us to work in. 

To end wage theft, we need to organise the hospitality industry. And it has never been a better time to get organised. The hospitality industry was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, but despite what our bosses would have you think, it is hospitality workers who are bearing the brunt of this crisis. Hospitality has always been a tough gig. Job insecurity, wage theft and sexual harassment plague the industry. With so many workers finding themselves unemployed, the pressure to accept wage theft and unsafe conditions is only increasing. If we are going to fight back, we cannot rely on a strategy that was limited even before the pandemic. We cannot simply appeal to our bosses’ better nature, to consumers, to the courts or to Dan Andrews. We need to take power into our own hands — and we need to pull our unions in behind us. We need a wage theft strategy that can actually win. And that means going to the place where the problem began — the workplace. We need to bite the hand that feeds us, and when we do, we’ll prove that actually, as it turns out, we have fed you all for a thousand years

To better understand where profit comes from:

To get some tips on getting organised in your workplace:

Comments on this article? Join the discussion at our Discord server, in our Telegram channel or on Twitter.