‘Insecure Work Is The Biggest Issue Facing Australian Workers’

Hospitality workers have formed the Hospo Voice union to fight expoitation at work
Hospitality workers have formed the Hospo Voice union to fight expoitation at work

Australia is a global pacesetter in the creation of various forms of insecure employment, leaving only 60% of the workforce in standard, secure work, says a new report from the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions).

The report: Australia’s insecure work crisis: Fixing it for the future reveals that the country has the third-highest rate of non-standard forms of work in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). ‘We are rapidly heading towards the complete Americanisation of our workforce unless we change direction,’ warns ACTU.

The report reveals that around forty per cent of all workers have fallen into insecure work, are part-time are on short-term contracts, are employed through a labour hire firm, the new gig economy, or as supposedly ‘independent’ contractors.

These forms of work are often used by employers to avoid their legal obligations to their employees.

A full time, standard employee can expect all the leave entitlements, superannuation contributions and workplace protections that the union movement has fought for over centuries. A labour-hire worker, or someone on a short-term contract, has little bargaining power and takes enormous risk standing up for better rights as well as having less rights than other workers in the first place.

ACTU Secretary Sally McManus said: ‘The level of insecure work we have in Australia is not normal.

‘It is far worse than most OECD countries and it has got much worse over just one generation. ‘Insecure work is the biggest issue facing Australian workers. It runs through everything.

‘When you are not secure in your job, you have less rights, greater stress. It affects your everyday life and that of your family. This has to change.

‘Insecurity disproportionately affects women and is entrenching the gender pay gap. ‘Insecure work is now destroying the workplace rights of generations of workers. ‘There are sensible, straightforward changes to our workplace laws that will reverse this trend.

‘We have a simple decision to make, do we want the next generation to never know what it is like to have a paid holiday or do we think they deserve the same or better rights their parents and grandparents had.’

• A food delivery rider has told a Sydney protest his wages have dropped significantly over the two-and-a-half years he’s been riding for one of the major delivery companies in Australia.

‘When I started two and half years ago the standard contract was $14 an hour and $5 dollars a delivery,’ rider Matt told reporters. ‘Those are now looked at as the golden old days. I now know riders that are doing $7 a delivery and zero dollars an hour – these guys are making $14, $7 or zero dollars an hour.’

Last Wednesday’s protest was held ahead of riders and the Transport Workers Union appearing at the Fair Work Commission’s annual review of award wages. The TWU argues companies like Deliveroo, Foodora and Uber Eats avoid paying their employees properly by treating them as contractors.

‘Delivery companies insist riders are independent contractors as a way of denying them rights and protections,’ union national secretary Tony Sheldon said. ‘These riders do not operate as independent contractors since the employer controls their working life. ‘They wear the company uniforms, they have set rosters and shifts and don’t make any capital investment in their business operations.’

Delivery riders on Wednesday joined the TWU in presenting evidence to Fair Work that they’re poorly paid, aren’t compensated when injured, don’t receive superannuation and can’t access unfair dismissal laws. ‘I’ve fallen off my bicycle and smashed up my shoulder,’ Matt told reporters.

‘I could barely walk… so I took the next day off. ‘I couldn’t turn the light switch on with my right arm but I had to return to work the day after that. I just dosed up on Panadeine.’

The major food delivery companies are practising ‘wage theft’ and the Fair Work Commission should act to protect riders, Sheldon said. ‘Deliveroo, Foodora and Uber Eats are really carrying out wage theft,’ he told reporters. ‘They’re stealing from hardworking people, who are delivering to our homes right around our country, by underpaying them.’

• An online union for hospitality workers has been launched amid growing concern about wage theft and worker exploitation. The union, called Hospo Voice, was formed in response to the transient nature of work in the restaurant and bar sector. The industry employs a high proportion of backpackers and migrant workers, making it difficult for unions to organise workers and deal with allegations of wage theft.

A survey of 624 workers conducted by United Voice last year estimated 76% of hospitality businesses were underpaying their staff. In recent months, high-profile restaurants have become embroiled in wage theft scandals involving allegations of underpayment of workers, including Bar Coluzzi in Sydney and Vue de Monde in Melbourne. Hospo Voice is being run by United Voice with backing from the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

The online union is being piloted in Victoria, but hopes to expand across Australia. Members have access to digital tools to check how much they should be getting paid, a tracking tool to record and prove hours worked and a harassment diary to keep track of workplace bullying.

‘Endemic wage theft and sexual harassment have prompted hospitality workers from bars, cafes and restaurants to come together and fight to change their industry,’ United Voice said. ‘Hospitality has a young, transient and casual workforce often working in small, single-site venues. These workers have often felt powerless, disposable and unable to unionise. But the internet and social media have changed the game.’

Ruby Lethbridge, a 19-year-old university student, works casually as a waiter, barista and bartender in Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs. Her boss recently told staff that half of the cost of any meals mistakenly put through the register would be docked from their wages.

‘It hasn’t gone down well with staff at all,’ Lethbridge said. ‘I’ve talked to lots of fellow staff members and we’re all aware that this is illegal. ‘I and others I work with are getting dramatically underpaid about $9 under the award rate; we are paid in cash and are not given penalty or holiday rates. ‘Previous staff have requested wage increases, which have never been granted, and the owners say they simply can’t afford to pay us any more, although they have recently opened a new restaurant and bought a new delivery car.’

Lethbridge said while she had considered leaving and had applied for other jobs, other hospitality jobs were similar. ‘I have since been in contact with United Voice and hope to make a pay dispute complaint for backpay,’ she said. Lethbridge said she also wanted to complain that she had not been paid any superannuation for the past seven months.

Robert Li said his wife received $10 per hour working in a Chinese restaurant. He said there were too many ‘creative’ ways for employers to steal wages. Li believes payrolls and salaries for the hospitality industry should be outsourced to an independent third party responsible for paying wages and monitoring hours worked. ‘I understand it may mean rising costs for restaurants, but currently it is the employer that benefits the most from the wage theft and they should be held accountable for that,’ he said.