Hospo Voice

Hospo workers: essential until we’re not

June 7, 2021

How the government abandoned hospo workers during COVID

Hi, I’m Jordi, a member of Hospo Voice. I work as a barista and most people would say my work has been pretty essential throughout the last year. I mean, everyone needs their coffee, right?!

But the thing is, despite being called an ‘essential worker’, I’ve felt pretty dispensable. From the initial decimation of the hospitality industry, to the lacklustre financial support and then being told we don’t even deserve a minimum wage increase? I know I’m not alone when I say I’m bloody pissed off. Here’s why.

The joke JobKeeper payments

Remember back in March last year when everything just started shutting down. Finally we were in full blown lockdown and suddenly all of us in hospo were left without wages. 

It took ages but the Federal Government introduced JobKeeper (only after a heap of pressure from the unions mind you). For some, JobKeeper was great. $1500 a fortnight to help get by. But not for lots of hospo workers. Thousands of casual and migrant workers didn’t even qualify for JobKeeper. It honestly made me question whether this was deliberate, trying to exclude as many people as possible.

Grounds for exploitation

Then there was how the payments were organised. Instead of paying the workers directly, it was all organised through employers. I get it, this might have seemed like the most logical way of distributing the funds. But it also meant the system was prime for exploitation.

The whole point of the payment was for people to stay home and stay safe (while also having money to eat and pay rent). But I heard of so many people whose bosses told them “well, you’re being paid, you need to work”. 

So there were more people than usual rostered on, which meant it was impossible to socially distance. Or they were being forced to do jobs that weren’t in their job description, like painting the café walls or babysitting their boss’ kids. WTAF?

We also heard of workers who were told to pay back part of their JobKeeper to their employers. And others who were told by their employer that the company wasn’t getting JobKeeper, then found out their boss was receiving it but not passing it on to workers. 

The thing is, JobKeeper was a wage subsidy for workers and it was desperately needed. It should have been paid directly to workers. And it should have included everyone – full time, part time and casual, regardless of citizenship or visa status. We all need to eat.

Not so super

Many of us were getting pretty desperate last year. We weren’t paid enough in the first place, according to the Rebuilding Hospo report, 47% of us didn’t have enough savings to cover a month’s basic expenses. 7% of us had to borrow money from friends or family, 32% of us fell behind in our bills, 20% went without essentials and 12% had to access a food bank or charity. 

So, what were we allowed (even encouraged) to do? Dip into our super. A precious nest egg designed to support us at the end of our working lives. We didn’t want to do it, but we were left high and dry. We were pretty desperate, and we had no government support. Nearly 3 million people took $36 billion from their super accounts. We’re all going to pay for that in the future when we don’t have enough to retire on.

Locked down with no support

Since JobKeeper finished this year, Perth, Brisbane and now Melbourne have all gone into lockdown. But until the last week, there have been no extra government wage subsidies. So us ‘essential workers’ have been left with nothing again. 

Even the current supplement introduced for Melbourne, a.k.a. the ‘temporary COVID disaster payment’ is pretty grim. You’re eligible for $500 if you usually work over 20 hours a week, or $325 if you work fewer than 20 hours a week. This is way less than what people received via JobKeeper, let alone what their usual income would be.

Plus there’s a bunch of additional criteria. You must have used your pandemic sick leave or other leave if your employer offers it. You must have less than $10k in liquid assets. You’re not eligible if you’re receiving any support payments from the government – so if you’re making ends meet by working in addition to your Austudy payments, you won’t get the supplement. 

Look, we’re really glad there’s finally a bit of support for us ‘essential workers’. But yet again it’s late and not enough. Most people who are working casually are also receiving some sort of government benefit. They’re excluding the most in need from getting this payment.

Entrenching casualisation

The government’s controversial industrial relations bill passed earlier this year. While it’s pretty different to its previous version, it included some definitions that will make it harder for casual workers to get permanent positions. 

Many lobbyists talk about casualisation as a lifestyle preference that workers choose. But this is a total myth. Before last year, 64.5% of hospo workers said a permanent job was “extremely” or “very” important. Since COVID-19 hit the hospitality industry, this figure increased to 76.5%, an increase of 12%.

The entrenchment of casualisation makes it impossible for casual workers to speak up about wage theft and unsafe workspaces without risking our jobs. Your boss can just take away hours with no real justification.

The pandemic showed us that secure jobs are crucial, yet our government made it easier for bosses to deny us permanent roles. They’ve also done little to encourage employers to hire more workers permanently.

So what do we want?

We want to be given enough support when we can’t work because of government-enforced lockdown. 

We want the Morrison government to sort out the vaccination program now. The roll-out has been a shambles. As someone who is serving the general public as an essential worker I’d be keen on getting vaccinated, but not until those who are most vulnerable, and those working with the most vulnerable in our community have gotten their doses. If this hadn’t been bungled from the get-go maybe hospo workers like me would be eligible by now.

We’d like a minimum wage increase, NOT another wage freeze! We have had a tough year and we need more support. Sign this petition to demand the minimum wage increase we deserve this July.Oh, and we want to be treated decently. Hospitality is one of the key channels to improve the economy. After all, there are state government incentives like the NSW Government’s Dine and Discover that are getting people out and about to spend money in hospo. But if we’re a vital part of the recovery, we deserve some respect. Essential they say? Then treat us that way.

Are you as fired up as me?

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