Hospo Voice

READY TO RIOT: This is why hospo workers are angry as hell

March 28, 2020

By Hollie, Hospo Voice Member

Early mornings and late nights, holidays and weekends. We are the workers who put food on the table in cafés, restaurants and bars across the country. But as the COVID-19 pandemic tears the hospitality industry apart, we are left are asking how we will put food on our own tables.

Stacey, a worker at a large multinational corporation, describes how in response to the health emergency she received massive cuts to hours and very little support or information — but adds that she did receive “many emails sent around about how to ‘look clean’ for our guests’ sake”.

Her voice is just one of the many being raised in response to the call-out for stories from workers around the country collected by Hospo Voice, the hospitality workers’ union, via ilostmyhosposhift.com.au. 

In the last week approximately 100,000 of us have been thrown out of work. The Federal Government predicts another 200,000 will join them within weeks. 

The stories workers have told on this site paint a pretty grim picture. But when you dig a little deeper, there are reasons to fight — and reasons to hope.

Lives falling apart.

“Both of my workplaces have closed down. I am stressed and worried and feel ignored by all levels of government. No one is mentioning the amount of people out of work already and what they are going to do about it. My partner has also lost his job as of next Friday and we have two young children.” — Leah

“I have been working for a hotel, five days a week on a casual basis. I have been told there would be no work for months, could be until October due to Covid-19. I am also in my second trimester and my baby is due in August. My partner also is getting laid off for 6 months. We really need help financially.” — Amy

“Currently having to move into a mate’s house to live on their couch as my venue shut down in under 48 hours, we were given 24 hours notice. No work, no nothing, and weren’t even given a small payout and still have to wait until the end of our two week pay cycle for our pay for the few shifts done this week.” — Shaun

“I’ve always worked very hard and never paid bills or rent late, I’ve lived in my home for four years and looked after myself since I was very young. Now my whole life is falling apart and if we don’t get some kind of assistance I will likely be homeless.” — Tahlia

As hospo workers lose our jobs with little to no notice, entire families have been thrust into uncertainty. Homelessness looms over the heads of struggling workers and there is no relief in sight. How did we end up here?

This crisis is laying bare the vulnerable position that workers have been standing in all along.

Insecure work is not a new problem for hospitality workers. Casual workers being forced to work when they are unwell, or else not being able to pay their rent, is not a new story. This is an industry built on the widespread casualisation of the workforce — casualisation that Dan, head chef of an iconic, award winning restaurant in Brisbane, calls “a raw deal for workers”.

Now we’re seeing what the “best interests of business” mean for workers — on an unprecedented scale. Forced to confront the consequences of the erosion of our rights at work, casual workers will be the first to lose their jobs as business slows down. But even those with contracts are being pushed into a corner.

“As a casual worker I don’t have access to sick pay or time in lieu. I have worked the same roster for nearly six months, and picked up extra shifts frequently and as often as I could. Living paycheque to paycheque I don’t know how I’m going to afford my medication in a few weeks, let alone the doctor’s appointments.” — Bel

“I have two jobs that I work to support myself. Both of my jobs have had hours cut completely. I’ve contacted Centrelink but there’s a massive wait. If I don’t have a job I can’t pay rent and I will become homeless. I can’t buy food or even a fucking beer to make myself feel better.” — Sam

“I was employed as a full time chef. My restaurant was swift to make all staff with less than one year service redundant to avoid payouts. They closed indefinitely a few days after that. There is no possibility I will get another job. I now will not have sick pay if I get sick. I can pay my rent this week, then I will become homeless.” — Jonathan

“Even though I am a full time contracted employee on salary I have been put on forced leave without pay and my contract also states I cannot work for any other business. Being still employed with my company I also cannot receive any Government benefits unless I resign. It’s pushed myself and my coworkers into a corner. We have received no support from our company and don’t know when this will all blow over.” — Stephanie

“I work in a hotel – I am a full time employee and am looking at losing one to two shifts a week, maybe more as time progresses. This is still far less devastating than the situation that my casual colleagues are facing, who have been stripped of shifts entirely. My bosses tell them they aren’t fired, that they want them to stay with us through this ordeal and stay positive, but these platitudes won’t pay their rent and fill their bellies.” — Brielle

“Trapped in Australia”. 

Workers on visas are faced with even more uncertainty. If you are unable to return to your home country and to your family, and have lost the jobs you rely on; if you can’t access welfare payments, but no other relief is offered — what are you supposed to do? Regardless of visa status, many hospitality workers from overseas call Australia home. The virus does not discriminate based on citizenship, so why does the government’s response?

“I’m an international student with little support in Australia. Food and rent are my main worries at the moment. I only got five hours work this week. And every day seems to be worse. If there’s anything I can do — I’m more than happy to work at anything.” — Charmian

“As an international backpacker with no advice or support offered by either home or the Australian government, I’ve been left out to dry. Especially when the chance of now getting a flight back to the UK is slim to none.” — Grace

“I’m a New Zealand citizen living here with my Spanish wife who is in Australia on a 462 Visa. My final shift will be this Tuesday, as will hers as we worked for the same hotel restaurant … We’re trapped in Australia. We can’t go back to Spain due to flight availability and the situation there. New Zealand immigration has said that my wife cannot enter New Zealand with me as she hasn’t been a New Zealand visa holder despite us having been together for five years and married for over two.” — Tara

We need a pandemic response that is centred on health and not wealth.

Workplaces that do not prioritise the health of workers are risking not only the safety of staff, but that of the entire community. Li Chun describes the concerns of workers, who know “Staying at home is safer, but we still need to pay the rent and buy food.” Without sick pay and special leave provisions, workers must choose between paying their rent or risking their safety, and that of everyone around them. This is not a choice anyone should have to make.

“In our store, some of our employees have chronic health conditions who desperately need a consistent income in order to survive. What are they supposed to do? I’m terrified for them.” — Eamon

“I have an immune disorder which has resulted in having to quarantine regardless of infection. I can’t work, I can’t go grocery shopping, I can’t leave my house. I now have to apply for Centrelink benefits which could take months to kick in. I have rent to pay, car insurance, phone bills, and no way of earning money for the foreseeable future. Our government needs to take action now and start looking after the casual workers of this country.” — Dylan

“I had a mild cold in the last two weeks and was forced to take two weeks off in case it turned out to be COVID-19…Because I only shifted to a part time contract from casual two weeks ago, I have not accrued any sick or holiday leave.” — Gemma

“I have lost one of my hospitality jobs and the venue is likely shutting down permanently. My other job continues with a boss who isn’t taking enough health precautions, meaning I’m constantly at risk of getting sick/getting others sick at work.” — Stella

But there are ways to fight back. Chris, a baker based in Melbourne, describes how when management failed to take precautions to protect the workers at his bakery, union members brought their colleagues together to demand the right to a safe workplace. Their open letter and petition were taken up by his colleagues, and contained a number of demands around providing sanitary equipment as well as safety practices to be implemented. 

Their collective action forced management to act on the workers’ demands. This was a win not only for the bakery workers, but also a vital public health measure — in a context where even small wins can mean the difference between life and death. You can access similar resources here. 

We need money in the pockets of workers, not in the pockets of business.

As the government pledges emergency relief to business, workers like Sabrina are left with a question: “Scomo wants to give money to businesses to keep them afloat, but what about us?”. Attorney-general Christian Porter thinks he has an answer: many casual workers will have “already made provisions”. Low-income earners in an industry rife with wage theft are expected to have prepared extensive savings in case of emergency, but their bosses can expect to be bailed out by the government. 

Perhaps that’s why they think we should wait until April 27 for the new Jobseeker Allowance. This new payment of $550 is still nothing like a living wage – it’s five weeks away and many workers will miss out. 

Meanwhile, a big chunk of the Federal Government’s multi-billion dollar economic stimulus package is directed at business and the benefits will not flow down to workers — but “trickle down” economics is not a trick that we will fall for.

Our government and our bosses want “business as usual” to continue, but for workers in the hospitality industry that means insecure work and wage theft.

Employer groups in other industries have already signalled an attack on award rates and we can expect the same attacks on our rights. But in a society with billionaires, there is no excuse to not pay everyone a living wage and good secure jobs. 

Scott Morrison is demanding that people stop hoarding toilet paper. We are demanding that people stop hoarding wealth! Hospo Voice members were campaigning against wage theft in our industry before this pandemic, and by standing together we can fight against the bosses and the businesses that would steal from us now.

“The business just received $25k to keep it running and pay staff. They are double dipping and letting the casual staff suffer. Instead of supporting them, they are letting them starve.” — Kevin

“Hours are being cut. The absolute bizarre thing is – we’re still quite busy. The company I work for (a well known burger company) is using this as an excuse to cut labour and up the work we’re doing.” — Amira

“After five years as a waiter at a Korean restaurant my boss says no job, and if you want a job in a few weeks time they can only pay half your pay…Currently we are underpaid at $18/hr, now if we want to work it will be $9 per hour” — Anonymous

“I have fallen behind on mortgage repayments, I will lose the house. My work, a large hospitality company, has been working hard to remove all casuals. They have offered to pay casuals the next two weeks wages only if the venue closes but are trying to remove all casuals before that happens. They have failed the workers yet again, but kept the owners’ family in the latest prestige cars.” — Timothy

“Had every shift (three) cancelled since Monday and now I’ve found out today our venue will be shutting down indefinitely on Sunday. Meanwhile, the owner just purchased a new Range Rover.” —Caitlin

Hospo workers are not just losing shifts in the face of this pandemic — we’re losing our homes, our security, our plans and our hope. Belle, a bartender at a once busy cocktail bar in Melbourne, puts it best: “We’re fucked”.  This crisis is exposing all the cracks in an industry built on insecure work. With no safety net to catch us, we’re going to fall through them. Unless we do something about it. 

Workers are already speaking up in their thousands, and this is only the beginning. We’re pointing the finger at those responsible: the bosses that have profited from an industry that is built on the exploitation of vulnerable workers, and the governments that have systematically stripped us of our rights at work. We won’t let the people that led us into this crisis off the hook. We know that the system was sick before COVID-19. 

Hospo workers are fighting back with their union. Over 3000 of us have spoken out via ilostmyhosposhift.com.au sharing these harrowing stories. And we are joining our union.  More than twice the average number of workers joined Hospo Voice in March – 102 so far, just for Victoria. And we are organising online to support each other and campaign for a living wage for ALL hospo workers, whatever their citizenship.

When this crisis is over we will look back on it and know that while the billionaires and the politicians sat on their hands, and while the companies put profit before the lives of ordinary people, it was the workers that came together and stepped up to meet the challenge. 

Hospo Voice members stand in solidarity with the healthcare workers, the cleaners, the transport workers, the teachers and the supermarket workers on the frontline of this emergency, and we will fight for every worker that has been left behind by a system that puts profit before people. 

In the coming months, we will need each other. This crisis calls for self-isolation, but that does not mean that you should feel isolated. The best advice for hospo workers in a public health emergency is to join your union. We’re looking forward to standing with you — at a safe distance.

Hospo Voice members are planning escalating protests to fight for a living wage for ALL hospo workers. Events will be posted on our Facebook page. If you’d like to help organise these, fill in this form and someone will be in touch soon.

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