Hospo Voice members and supporters who have been organising to combat wage theft were happy to hear on February 28 that the Fair Work Ombudsman had decided to investigate Le Bon Ton to ensure it is complying with Fair Work regulations.
On February, the union marched against the New Orleans-inspired Collingwood bar Le Bon Ton to protest its theft of some $20,000 in wages.
The protest was the latest in a string of headline-grabbing actions organised by the young hospitality union — a project of United Voice — which is working to combat the epidemic of wage theft and employer abuse in the hospitality sector.
Le Bon Ton, operating out of the historic Glasshouse Hotel, is owned by The Balleau Group and headed by Will and Mick Balleau.
Hospo Voice analysed the payslips and rosters of four workers at Le Bon Ton and other venues controlled by the Balleau brothers and found some workers were paid as little as $18.50 an hour.
The bosses’ exploitative tactics would be familiar to many hospitality workers: kitchen staff are paid in cash and off the books; Le Bon Ton closes at 6am on weekends with workers not knocking off until later — but no penalty rates are paid; and, over years, free knock-off beers take the place of thousands of dollars of unpaid wages.
Hospo Voice wants the Fair Work Ombudsman to prosecute the Balleau Group’s owners and is seeking the maximum penalties of fines, in excess of $1 million each.
Hospo Voice member Jess Perry, who worked at the Balleau brothers’ now closed venue Longhorn Saloon in 2016–17, was underpaid by more than $4000 — a debt confirmed by the group’s accountant. She was never paid.
Perry said: “The owners of Le Bon Ton always had a facade of being really kind and caring; the fact that we got a free beer at the end of the night seemed to make up for the fact that we weren't getting paid enough money for the hours we worked.
“But, at the end of the day, I would rather money in my bank and my rent paid than a free beer.”
A petition launched by Perry demanding justice for Le Bon Ton workers garnered more than 2000 signatures in less than two days.
In an industry where wage theft is rife, Hospo Voice members are turning the tables and fighting back.
United Voice Victoria secretary Jess Walsh said that every worker they had spoken to at Le Bon Ton “has been ripped off — in some cases, by many thousands of dollars”.
“The owners have even admitted to underpaying staff, then [they] brazenly failed to pay up.
“The great Aussie pub used to be a proud symbol of Australia’s egalitarian ethos: people from different classes could drink at the same bar and you knew the staff serving you got a fair and decent wage.
“What better example of how our work place rules are broken than to see so many pubs caught ripping off their staff,” Walsh said.