Former staff and United Voice union members protested outside Barry cafe in Northcote’s trendy High Street shopping strip on April 23 after workers said they were sacked for asking to be paid award wages.
The staff say they were paid $18 an hour and 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.
Anna Langford said when she and other staff at Barry discovered the discrepancy she sent the owners, Steve and Anne Petroulias, an email on behalf of nine staff asking to be paid the award rate. They said they wanted to discuss the issue as a group — a request that was rejected.
Langford said a further request for a group meeting was also rejected, after which the owners approached the staff individually, asking who was the ringleader.
At that point, Langford told the ABC: "We saw that we weren't going to get anywhere, so we got in touch with the Young Workers Centre and told them what was going on.
"They helped us draft an email to our bosses, signed by nine of us."
Minutes after the email was sent, Langford and two other workers who signed the letter received text messages from the owner cancelling all future shifts.
Petroulias said the shifts were cancelled because the cafe had too many staff and he did not know he was underpaying his workers: "I presumed that when they accepted the job, they were happy with what they were getting."
But staff do not accept the claim that the cafe was overstaffed. Hannah Paletu'a told the ABC that during her time at Barry, she never saw anyone's shifts cancelled and "we were always short-staffed".
Langford said she was shocked by the owners' reaction: "We started off reasonably requesting a meeting — we didn't even mention backpay — but they've reacted really badly and just shut us down.
"All we asked for was the minimum award rate. This is the most successful cafe in the neighbourhood, and they're underpaying their staff by 25%.”
The hospitality union United Voice is mounting a campaign against underpayment in the industry, including unpaid overtime at Melbourne’s exclusive Vue de Monde restaurant.
Victorian secretary of United Voice Jess Walsh said: "The way Barry Cafe has behaved could not be further away from the ethos of this community.
"We will be coming out in force to stand with these workers to send a strong message to this cafe and venues across the state that we are not going to put up with this kind of treatment of hospitality workers any longer."
Langford has started a petition calling on the Fair Work Ombudsman to conduct a full audit of Barry and order repayment of wages to past and present staff. You can sign the petition to send a clear message that it's time to take wage theft off the menu.