Blood, Sweat and Tears: Pay Us For What We Actually Do
By Dominic Causley-Todd
Owners of the now liquidated restaurant Sash, Kyle Stagoll and Dave Nelson, kicked up a fuss last week blaming high wages for the abject failure of their Sydney venture. They claimed that, with Sydney’s high rent, they couldn’t afford to continue to pay their staff award rates.
If you think this sounds a little unlikely, you’re not wrong: Stagoll and Nelson had wage costs at 45%, according to a post Stagoll made in the Melbourne Bartender Exchange. That can only happen if you can’t write a roster or you’re not making money. This particular case has nothing to do with the award being too high and everything to do with the fact that Stagoll and Nelson can’t take responsibility for their terrible business. I do agree with Stagoll and Nelson that the award needs to be modified, however it is because I strongly believe that the award needs to be raised dramatically.
Our society does not value the hospitality industry and the people who work in it enough. That is a simple fact. Ask anyone who has worked in the industry and they can tell you all about how they have been exploited and abused. The most public example of this is George Columbaris, recently found guilty of underpaying his staff almost $8 million. No one questioned the guilty verdict because as a community we just expect this to be going on, it’s one of our worst kept secrets. It’s almost expected. What is worse is that this is reflected in the punishment he received. The celebrity chef was fined a measly $200,000. He literally stole $7.8 million. He had taken almost $8 million from other people’s wallets. If you did that in other context, in other industry, you would go to prison without a second thought. But there is such an inherent disrespect towards those who work this industry in our society that it has even permeated our legal system. In no way is this fair, but what’s worse is that it’s not isolated. Merivale has been underpaying its staff almost laughably through some legal loophole since the mid 2000’s and only mildly improved them a few months ago thanks to union pressure. Everyone knows this, this isn’t even something just hospitality workers are aware of. Justin Hemmes and his empire are built on exploitation and for some reason everyone seems to be okay with it.
We view hospitality as a job that you do whilst you’re at uni to make a bit of cash, something you suffer through until you can find a ‘real job’. When I tell people that I want to pursue a career as a bartender they genuinely think I am joking. It’s not a valid profession to most of the population. The most common question I get asked whilst working full time in bars and restaurants is “What are you studying?” because in everyone’s minds working as a bartender or waitperson isn’t a real job. The award rates reflect this view, the way we are treated by customers, employers and management reflect this view, and now it seems that the way we are treated by the legal system also reflects the overarching lack of respect for some of the hardest working people in the country.
Because of this, when a former model opens a sushi pizza bar in the heart of Sydney and is unafraid to claim that paying his staff is a burden I’m not surprised.
I propose a change to the award. If paying the rent for the venue is hard? Guess what, your staff need to pay rent as well. If you can’t pay them for the work that they are doing, that means you are not running a successful business and that responsibility is on you to make more money.
The current award outlines the tasks that are categorised into different pay levels that are not even close to accurately describing the tasks and responsibilities of your average hospitality worker.Whilst you do all the tasks of a level 2 bartender or waitstaff, you are also likely to need to complete some that are part of the level 4 category. For example: if you were working in one of Neil Perry’s or Heston Blumenthal’s restaurants and getting paid the level 2 award as a waiter ( I should note that neither Perry nor Blumenthal pay award wages ) your job will primarily be running food, clearing tables, taking orders and payments of a particular section of the restaurant. However, every second table is going to ask you for a wine recommendation and that requires you to have specific enough wine knowledge to navigate what is a very complex wine list ( Rockpool has 3000 wines). That is a task that cannot theoretically be carried out by someone on level 2 pay and yet it will happen hundreds of times every single night.
If we stay with the example of a level 2 waitperson and for arguments sake say that the only tasks and duties they perform are the ones perfectly described in the award. It does not factor in just how hard that job is. You’re not just clearing plates and running food, you are in one of the most high-pressure situations in professional employment. You mess up an order and you can ruin the date where someone is about to propose to their partner, that’s on you. If you accidentally give someone the wrong plate and they have an allergy they can die, that’s on you. This is all before you get the constant rudeness, abuse, criticism from the people you are doing your best to look after. You need to smile at the arseholes that berate and scream at you because their wine took 5 minutes to get to the table instead of appearing instantly, you need to work through the chaotic and intimidating environment that is a professional kitchen, you need to clean up vomit, broken glass and break up fights. These are things that happen every single day and are forgotten in the award. The emotional labour in the hospitality industry is phenomenal and not respected anywhere near enough. It takes everything out of you and then you finish work at ungodly times bleeding, sweating, exhausted and emotionally drained, and paid $19 an hour to deal with all of it.
There is a reason that front of house hospitality has one of the highest rates of substance abuse, increasingly common mental health issues and rampant alcoholism and suicide. It’s a brutal job that doesn’t get the wages or the respect it deserves.
So to the boys at Sash who complained about the high wages of their staff: I want to see you work in your own venue. Close your venue for 5 nights in a row and see how brilliant and rewarding serving people can be and just how draining and crushing it can end up being as well. We are the people who allow you to have the best experiences of your life, we listen to all of your problems, we facilitate all of your requirements, we want to make you leave our venues happier than when you walked in. But remember that doesn’t make you better than us, you need to count yourself lucky that there is someone willing and eager to do this job. We are your servers, not your servants, and you need to give us the respect and the wages we deserve.