Wage theft should not be on the menu

The writer George Orwell in his book Down and Out in Paris and London was struck by how easy it was for restaurant owners to exploit waiters. In the Paris cafes where he worked in the 1930s the waiters never joined unions and worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week. Orwell put it down to a certain snobbery which made them identify with the rich people they served. “They find the servile nature of their work rather congenial.”

It is hard to know if similar motivations apply for the workers at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, a restaurant in Melbourne’s Crown casino linked to the celebrity chef.

British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal.

British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal.Credit:AAP

The Sun-Herald reports that time records show that staff are working much longer than the standard 40 hours and are regularly rostered on for 60 hours a week. Many have to work extra unpaid hours which means they are underpaid by hundreds of dollars a week.

Unfortunately two other celebrity chefs, Neil Perry and Guillaume Brahimi, are linked to restaurant operations which have similar business methods. Rockpool Dining Group, linked to Perry, recently gave $1.6 million to its staff to compensate them for underpayment.

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Some workers at these prestigious eateries may accept exploitation as the price for boosting their CVs and learning new skills. Yet that is likely only part of the story. Many workers are being exploited. Perhaps they are in Australia on temporary working visas which makes it hard for them to quit a sponsoring employer or they have non-native English which means they are less familiar with their rights.

The patrons of top restaurant are very particular about other aspects of their food, many requiring it to be free of preservatives and perhaps free range to ensure the welfare of the animals. It is ironic that they are less concerned about those working on the other side of the swinging kitchen doors.

In cases where the underpayment is exposed, patrons should vote with their feet and go elsewhere or at least let the celebrity chefs know what they think. Rockpool’s decision to reimburse workers show how keen they are to protect their image.

Heston Blumenthal with Neil Perry and Guillaume Brahimi.

Heston Blumenthal with Neil Perry and Guillaume Brahimi. Credit:Simon Alekna

In fact, exploitation in less prestigious hospitality businesses is also rife, affecting everyone from pizza delivery services to 7-11 store cashiers.

As evidence of the extent of underpayment has grown, thanks to reporting in the Herald and campaigns by the trade unions, government bodies like the Fair Work Ombudsman have stepped up their efforts to make workers aware of their rights and to track down and fine employers who break the rules. More can be done.

Victoria and Queensland are both talking about making what unions like to call “wage theft” a criminal offence. This would be a dramatic step and should only be done after careful consideration. Employer groups argue criminal sanctions would be excessive. Certainly if they are introduced, criminal sanctions should only be applied to the worst, repeat offenders.

In theory, as the labour market strengthens workers should be able to drive a harder bargain. But, for now, the reality is that much of the night time culture we so value in Sydney is based on various forms of underpayment of hospitality workers. Australia prides itself on its high minimum award wages but they make little difference if they can be easily flouted. We may just have to pay more to go out.