Long shifts & late nights…that’s hospitality!

I am one of Australia’s 828,000 hospitality workers. No, I am not a teenager, student or backpacker. This is my full-time job and I see myself doing it for years to come. But some things need to change.

The turnover rate in hospitality is three times that of most other industries. Hospitality workers work some of the longest hours for the lowest pay. While I’m lucky enough to be a permanent employee, an increasing number of hospitality workers are employed as casuals. This makes life even harder, trying to budget on a fluctuating income that can be cut off at any moment without notice.

In hospitality it’s normal to work through breaks and stay back after your shift officially ends. In a kitchen, sometimes it’s only the smokers who get an actual break, even just for a few minutes. Eating during a shift usually means inhaling food so quickly you can’t actually taste it.

A recent study found that hospitality workers are more likely to abuse prescription medication and over-the-counter drugs than employees in other industries. Sometimes it’s easier to self medicate than take time off and see a doctor, especially if you’re not entitled to sick leave. This is a worrying trend and puts everyone at risk, especially if you’re serving food.

Instead of things getting better for hospitality workers, things are about to get worse. The proposed changes to Sunday penalty rates will have a huge impact on many hospitality workers. For us, it’s not a theoretical debate about whether or not people go the church on a Sunday in modern Australia. It’s a matter of relying on those penalties to make ends meet, because our wages are so low to begin with.

Over 40% of hospitality workers are paid according to the industry award rate – in other words, the minimum wages. To put this in perspective, the average amount of workers on award rates across all industries is only 15%. Meanwhile, Hospitality is one of the fastest growing industries in Australia and has grown by 18% in the last five years.

When it comes to public debate about penalty rates, annual leave and other conditions, we only hear about it from the employers perspective. The status quo has become so much in their favour that the chairman of the Productivity Commission recently said about our industry award: “We’ve squeezed as much lemon as we can out of this.”

They see us as lemons to be squeezed for profit! We are the ones doing the work yet we are taken for granted. Our needs are viewed as an inconvenience. The federal Treasurer, Scott Morrison, called the discussion about cutting penalty rates “boring”. Maybe we should go on strike to make the issue less boring for him! Or force him to work Sundays just to make ends meet.

The reason employers and politicians feel they can get away with cutting our wages and conditions is not because we don’t generate profits. It’s because our industry is not well unionised. Without a strong union presence in our workplaces, people can feel that if they speak up for their rights they could get punished or fired. On an industry wide level, we don’t have a strong voice in the public debates that impact our lives.

The largest union for hospitality workers is United Voice, a union with over 100,000 members nationwide. I’m a member, but because no-one else at my work was when I joined, the union hasn’t been much help.

I’ve had to start from scratch, explaining to my workmates what a union is and how by organising together we can improve some of the things we all complain about. So far I’ve managed to convince some of my workmates to join the union. Already we’ve been able to make some small improvements to our rostering system and holiday pay. This is just the beginning.

Things will not improve in the hospitality industry until we as workers start to get organised and fight back. It can seem daunting, but workers in other industries have done it and we can too. As a member of the Socialist Party, and of my union, I’ve got the experience and support I need to start changing things. If you work in hospitality, you should join the fight!

By a hospitality worker in Melbourne 

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