One of the most exciting developments in Melbourne recently was the launch on May 21of Hospo Voice, a new union for hospitality workers, initiated by United Voice.
Host of the event James Lea said he joined Hospo Voice last year when he was offered a job at Bar Americano for $21 an hour flat rate, no penalties.
He had a meeting with the owner of Bar Americano where he was told that “penalty rates don’t exist in Victoria anymore.”
“Bar Americano had never paid award rates and never would and he was rescinding the job offer because he couldn’t meet my salary expectations,” said Lea.
Lea’s response was “Gee whiz mister, I’m really sorry for asking for my legal rights”.
Another Hospo Voice member Anna Langford outlined the union’s campaign against trendy Barry Cafe’s refusal to pay proper wages. When Langford was employed, she was told that she would get $18 an hour, with no penalty rates for weekends or public holidays. Under the award, the minimum rate should have been $23.51 for weekday shifts and $29.30 for weekends.
The rebellion of Barry Cafe staff began when they were told the cafe would be closed on Easter Sunday, and then close to the day were told it would be open. When workers said they had made alternative plans and could not work, their shifts were cut indefinitely.
The workers responded by setting up a Facebook group and emailing their boss asking for a group meeting. The owner tried to divide the workers by saying that he would not meet them as a group, only individually. He tried to scare the workers by sacking one two days after receiving the email and harassing the rest, asking who the “ringleader” was.
The workers stuck together and contacted the Young Workers Centre (from Trades Hall) and Hospo Voice. Then they went public to tell their side of the story.
Langford said: “There was a funny feeling of being so disempowered, but realising that it was happening across an entire industry as well. That’s when we discovered the amazing Hospo Voice.
“When we drafted the first email, they panic hired new staff to replace us.
“We sent another email asking to be backpaid everything we were owed. In less than 24 hours, the amazing Hospo Voice organised a rally of more than 100 people outside Barry for us. Two hours after the rally, we got an email from our boss asking: ‘How can we solve this ugly business? Can we sit down and talk?’.
“Two days later, instead of doing the right thing, I got an email saying: ‘We will sue you if you keep on harassing our business’. I didn’t realise that asking for our rights was harassment.
“”My entire view of working in hospo has changed over the last few weeks. I used to have the view that it’s just a job I’ll have for a few months so what’s the point of standing up to your boss.
“But Hospo Voice is really seriously going to turn the tables. This is where the power is.
“We are the face of Melbourne’s food and coffee industry, but we’re not getting any of the benefits. Us banding together like this gives me so much hope that we can transform this industry and feel good about going to work every day and not just feel like it is an unimportant job. We’re really strong together.”
Hospo worker Nikki Keating talked about Hospo Voice’s “Respect is the Rule” campaign to stamp out sexual harassment and assault in the industry, so that hospitality workers and patrons can have a safe workplace.
United Voice state secretary Jess Walsh, who launched Hospo Voice, said: “We are building this new union because wage theft has become a business model in hospitality across this state. And we are building this new union because sexual harassment is at epidemic proportions in hospitality across this state.
“We know that young workers are ready to stand up and fight back. Already we are stamping out sexual harassment through our Respect is the Rule campaign. We are naming and shaming bad employers.
“We want to make sure that wage theft becomes a crime in this state. We’ve taken on Chin Chin and won. We’ve taken on Barry and won.”
This is the beginning of a movement by hospitality workers to win back their rights. This was evident as more than 200 hospitality workers proudly chanted “Union power, union power” with their fists (holding forks) in the air.