May 31, 2018

Want to confront the problems in hospitality? Let’s deconstruct cafe culture

New union Hospo Voice and Victorian Labor are confronting wage theft in hospitality. But are consumers?

Benjamin Clark

Freelance writer

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.


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19 thoughts on “Want to confront the problems in hospitality? Let’s deconstruct cafe culture

  1. BeamBox

    Not enough is said about how these workers are vulnerable and this is a contradiction in a system that depends on your savvy to enforce your own rights. Minimum wage workers are often by default not the most savvy people hence the level of work they work at. Then you add in a lot of youth, migrants and under educated locals of older age.

    Telling someone who struggles to read official documents they need to advocate for their own wages and run their own court case is crazy. I’ve worked with people who did not even understand they were not being paid legally. I read one person’s group cert and had to explain to them it was a piece of fraud, and they still did not comprehend what their boss had done to them.

    A fair wage system is one where the Government prosecutes more often on people’s behalf. You cannot expect these people to do it themselves, they’re mostly not savvy inner city middle class uni student’s with educated parents and a new found thirst for unionism. They’re vulnerable people who cannot make heads or tails of what is going on and someone needs to intervene on their behalf.

  2. Roger Clifton

    Yes, pay them properly, for Chrissake. We don’t tip wait staff here in Oz because we believe we are in a decently run country where staff do not have to beg for their dues.

  3. the_Albert

    Maybe his bosses deducted a fine from his wages every time he used words like “precarity”.

    1. Tiocfaidh ár lá

      ‘Precarity’ is a word in common usage now to describe working conditions and is the correct term to describe the precarious situation many hospitality workers find themselves in. Don’t be such a supercilious nit picker and focus on the very serious issue.

      1. Stu Pidman

        I have never seen that word before.
        Thanks for the meaning, I’ll be dropping it into conversation now when the opportunity arises.

  4. klewso

    Some people seem to think wages are a privilege – “bestowed on employees by benevolent employers” (the “sometimes” intimation re the criminality of such theft, by “business leader” Ming Long? The Dum May 28)?
    But wages are money in exchange for “work”.
    Short-change or refuse to pay a doctor, dentist, surgeon, mechanic, electrician, plumber, lawyer or anyone else for their work and see what happens?
    If you took a TV or a car without paying for it you’d be charged with stealing? What are workers “selling” if not their work?
    What’s the difference between other sorts of “theft” and someone stealing someone else’s service for less than an agreed value?

  5. Dog's Breakfast

    Yeah, inexcusable, and we should have a regulator who goes and checks these things.

    What’s that, we already do, but the government gives them enough money to check 4 cafes a year?

    Restaurant businesses are difficult to make money out of – high overheads etc. However as often it is a case of people who can cook well are often the same people who couldn’t run any business, let alone a tough one.

    But cafes have no excuse. The margin on a cup of coffee is running around 900%, and well run could afford to pay legitimate wages and make a killing.

    Corporate bastardry at the small end to match the corporate bastardry at the big end of town. Thieves!

    1. Vasco

      Agree DB. It took Fair Work four years to get an outcome for cleaners in Melbourne ripped off in 2014.

  6. Federali

    Paul Keating called it more than 10 years ago, the union movement is asleep at the wheel and AWOL to be getting there easy public sector membership because it is hard to pick up members in private enterprise

    PAUL KEATING: One of the reasons why real wages are falling, it’s not simply because the Government is the kind of show it is, it’s because the unions are just not much good at what they do these days. The unions are just ineffective at getting real wage increases for working people. They’ve gone to seed the unions. This straw man thing, we’ll have the union bosses. Try and find one. Try and find one that can…

    TONY JONES: They’re all going to be in Parliament, aren’t they?

    PAUL KEATING: No. I mean, the fact is there’s been massive, when I started work I started work in Australia which was in the industrial age. I was one of the people that ushered into Australia the post industrial age. In the post industrial age the age of the collective is less and the natural role of unions is less. But as well as that may be they’ve also got incompetent as well.

    TONY JONES: You’re saying essentially the union movement is dying on the vine?

    PAUL KEATING: It’s dying on the vine. It’s dying out of lack of passion. Its reason for existence, and general incompetence.

    TONY JONES: So why should the Labor Party link itself so directly to a union movement that you describe like that?

    PAUL KEATING: I don’t think they should.

    TONY JONES: So what should they do?

    PAUL KEATING: Basically keep unions, look, any Labor Party that turns its back on a collective group of people is no Labor Party at all.

    But that doesn’t mean to say they have to become apologists for lolling about. I mean you take the instance, the liquor allied entertainment restaurants, entertainment industry in this country since the ’80s.
    It’s been massive. Unionisation hasn’t happened. There’s some of it there, basically hasn’t happened. Why? Incompetence.

    TONY JONES: If you’re right and if your vision is correct then you’re talking about a new Labor that doesn’t have unions attached to it?

    PAUL KEATING: You have Labor with unions attached to it but not ones where they’re calling the shots anymore than they call the shots on me when I introduced a 1993 labour market reforms to junk centralised wage fixing.

    TONY JONES: But that was my point before, you think they’re calling the shots now?

    PAUL KEATING: No, they’re not calling the shots now, that’s only Costello Howard talk. Silly what’s his name, the “Shrek” whoever he was on the television this morning. What’s his name?

    TONY JONES: Joe Hockey.

    PAUL KEATING: Yes, Joe Hockey. That stuffs all palaver.

    TONY JONES: Paul Keating, we are nearly out of time, but I mean, you realise you’ve set the cat among the pigeons, don’t you?

    PAUL KEATING: What cat amongst what pigeons?

    1. AR

      This transcript of PJK blather is a perfect example of how grievously he damaged this country and Labor values.
      Even this short extract is not coherent – he was just mouthing words he learned when, promoted way beyond his level of competence, he was duchessed and led upstairs & downstairs by Treasury and the BigAr$ed end of town to do exactly what they wanted, the dire effects of which the Rodent eagerly seized and made worse.
      It was once said, “Only Nixon could go to China” (despite Great Gough having done so earlier) and only Labor could devastate working conditions to the delight of cowardly tories.
      Truly he is our Tony Blair – a class traitor now living high on the hog for services rendered.

    2. Bob the builder

      Don’t see Keating doing any union work, just blaming the sort of hacks that his changes did everything to promote.
      Not to mention the powerful anti-union laws he brought in.

      Completely agree the union leadership is hopeless, but Keating isn’t the one to say so.

  7. Miles Malone

    At the very least in Brisbane, hospitality venues get audited semi-annually for food safety compliance, and more frequently if they have a history of non-compliance. I can see no good reason we couldn’t similarly audit their payroll compliance. And name-and-shame non-compilers in addition to financial penalties.

  8. AR

    This is obviously not confined to excruciatingly trendy/savagely experimental (nods to Mandy Saloman’s “Brainspace comedy”) but is exacerbated by the reliance of cash-in-hand.
    An especially outrageous example is a too, too cool for skool veggie restaurant in Lismore which uses only staff on the dole and ‘pays’ them at the end of each evening by putting a bunch of cash on the counter and telling them to take what they think they’ve been worth for the previous hours.

  9. Linda Connolly

    agree the rip-off is shameful, but really Benjamin, if you think buying fashionable foodstuffs is “a subversive act” you badly need further political education

    1. Stu Pidman

      Be interesting to see a graph plotting avocado consumption against positive social change.

  10. Xoanon

    Agree that this rotten system must be reformed and the correct pay enforced, but I’m not sure it’s reasonable to blame customers for not seeing the problems. How would we know? And where was the investigative news media all these years?

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