Three years ago, my wages were stolen. I worked for $15 an hour with no penalty rates in a local restaurant. I can still smell the sweat and food scraps stuck to my clothes, hear the screaming from the hot kitchen and feel the sinking disappointment when opening my weekly envelope of cash, poorly hidden beneath the register. “They must have made a mistake,” I thought at first. But it was no mistake.

My bosses were cordially duplicitous. They offered staff free pizza, as if this compensated more than halving our weekend wages. They were mostly friendly and light-hearted, as if this excused forgoing breaks and superannuation. Their image as benevolent “regular mums and dads” slowly crumbled as precarity, trying conditions and poor recompense left a sour taste in my mouth.

Finally, the public is seeing this darker side of hospitality. Recent wage theft allegations against popular Melbourne eateries Barry, Vue de Monde, Chin Chin and the Degani chain, as well as celebrity chefs George Calombaris and Darren Purchese, have leant high-profile names to a previously hidden problem. And these businesses aren’t merely “bad apples” — according to the Fair Work Ombudsman, 48% of Australian hospitality businesses do not comply with industrial laws.

How did businesses get away with it for so long? It’s partly because the dispersed nature of the industry makes unionising difficult. Blood ties and friendships between employers and employees pacify agitation. A weak industrial umpire is also failing to adequately enforce existing laws — the most recent of which are already antiquated and need changing, as unions demand. But I think something culturally specific is also at play.

Instagram foodie culture masks the problem

High-end hospitality has been exceptionally adept at cultivating a unique mythology in the social media era, which obscures its exploitative tendencies. These businesses are visual pastiches meticulously curated for Instagram popularity. Tattooed waiters in denim overalls. Lush indoor greenery. Tossed American ‘slaw and pulled pork on a rustic cheeseboard. Pierre Bourdieu would have a field day. Finally, taste arbiters such as Broadsheet reward such venues with powerful endorsements, eliciting a level of fandom often reserved for musicians and film stars.

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Cosmopolitan virtue-signalling is pervasive. Foreign cultural influences are frequently celebrated in venues’ interior design and menus. KeepCups are encouraged. During the marriage equality postal survey, many cafes in Yes-voting suburbs adorned their window with signs saying, “This small business is big enough to support same-sex marriage”. Ironically, these posters were sourced from Victorian Trades Hall, which is now demanding employers face jail-time for wage theft.

As anyone who has smirked at a fellow customer standing on their chair to snap the perfect lunch pic knows, the more seemingly effortless the final image, the more arduously constructed it likely was. 

Yet few questioned this rosy image. Even my unionist friends, well accustomed to shoddy workplace behaviour, were surprised when Barry was picketed. We failed to see beyond the abundant indoor plants and funky furniture to the young waitstaff and dish-hands toiling through arduous shifts for paltry sums. It should have been obvious. Hell, I’d experienced it myself. Yet somehow, between bites of kale, we swallowed corporate posturing toward young consumers, while the same corporations stole from young workers.

A reckoning for consumers?

By increasingly defining ourselves through conspicuous consumption, millennial subcultures have invited accusations of complicity. Yet, while we breathe life into “the system”, we also challenge it.  

The Australian columnist Bernard Salt’s assertion, for example, that young people could more easily own a house if they didn’t spend so much on smashed avocado prompted a spirited defence of young peoples’ right to purchase things that bring them joy. As baby boomers scolded youth for frivolity, eating a $17 smashed avocado on toast became a subversive act.

Consumption itself isn’t the problem here, and neither is allowing products to in part shape one’s identity. We all find joy and meaning in different kinds of consumption. And it’s hardly surprising that amidst neoliberal austerity, subcultures form around a shared love of indulgences.

Yet the cultural myths which guide our purchases ought to be demystified. Particularly, we must not obscure the material realities of hospitality work. The satisfied customer with a belly full of beef brisket inhabits an ecosystem of grinding, often thankless labour, and systemic inequities that no number of Instagram pics can solve.

Cafe culture must be, in true culinary terms, deconstructed. This lapse in our critical imagination should spur us to confront the contradictions underlying the things we love — not to disavow them, but to reckon with and navigate their complexities. If we fail, we risk licking our lips while the dish-hand starves.