A small but growing group of workers in Sydney has been turning the tables on exploitative employers who have cheated staff out of minimum entitlements.
Organised in the Sydney Solidarity Network (SydSol), workers have been using direct action to win wages from bosses who have paid employees less than the minimum wage, or not paid them for their work at all.
SydSol began in August last year when one of its members had worked at a call centre for a few weeks. After quitting, he was not paid for one of the all-day shifts he had undertaken, and despite four months of polite emails requesting payment, no money ever came through.
Illegal practices like this are all too common in Sydney, so the group took action. Fifteen people marched inside the call centre, confronted a surprised manager, and thrust a letter with their demands into his hands: pay up the wages that you legally owe your former employee within 14 days, or we will protest at the front of your offices.
The wages came through in a matter of days.
Shortly after this, SydSol was contacted by an international student who had worked at a large chain restaurant for nine months while being paid well below the hospitality casual minimum wage of $21.70 an hour.
Again, a big group confronted management and demanded back-pay, or else they would picket the shop. Within a few days, the president of the entire company, not just the offending outlet, met the worker and paid him $4500.
SydSol has recently wrapped up a fight in Marrickville, where a crowd of almost 30 people stood behind a pharmacy worker as she demanded back-pay from her former employer for two shifts she had never been paid for. Again, wages were won without even needing to protest.
The methods SydSol uses are extremely simple. Bold, eye-catching posters are put up around the city that read “Unpaid wages? Unpaid trial shifts? Contact us”. People contact the organisation via their website, and workers and organisers work together to set out demands and carry out action to win them.
The experience of SydSol has shown that with a bit of organisation, good tactics, and an awareness of what is achievable, it is possible to take on and win struggles around the basic, every day experiences of working-class life.
The problems SydSol fights against are becoming common. Since it launched 12 months ago, dozens of people who would never have considered themselves activists or radicals have contacted the group. But they understand the idea of standing up to bosses and other authority figures.
SydSol has also shown how, in many cases, gains against bosses can be won. Regularly winning fights is an inspiring experience, and SydSol believes that as it grows it will be able to take on larger struggles about bigger issues.
Solidarity networks are not perfect forms of organising. But if you are wondering what to do in your city they are a great way for small groups of workers, students and unemployed people to score wins and reach out to others who are being ripped off.
[SydSol would love to hear from Sydney residents. For more information, visit Sydney Solidarity Network.]