Two hundred and fifty people turned up to rally outside the Capalaba Sports Club in Brisbane’s eastern suburbs on Saturday morning to protest against the scrapping of penalty rates for two dozen casual staff at the club, costing some as much as $300 a week in lost wages.

In May, the club outsourced its casual staff to a labour hire company HospitalityX, which put forward a new employment contract on a “sign up or else” basis. Faced with the threat of unemployment, most workers signed on.

However, 19-year-old Griffith University law student Samarah Wilson, who had worked at the Club for 18 months, refused to sign and was promptly fired. Samarah has become the face of the United Voice campaign to have the HospitalityX contract ripped up and penalty rates restored.

“A punch in the face”

Samarah told Red Flag that the new contract was like “a punch in the face”, explaining that she would have lost $200 a week. The elimination of penalty rates means a loss to employees of $12 an hour on Saturdays, $17.50 on Sundays and a whopping $35 on public holidays.

Sarah (not her real name), the mother of a young casual worker at the club, told Red Flag that she was disgusted by what the club had done to her daughter and her colleagues: “The club expects her to serve customers with kindness and respect and yet they don’t serve her with kindness and respect by giving her the right amount of money that a worker deserves”.

In response to the club claim that no-one had been forced to sign, Sarah said: “If she hadn’t signed the contract, they would have dropped her shifts and eventually she would have to leave”.

The workers at the Club are a mixture of university students and longer term hospitality workers, including many sole parents.

Samarah explained that when the new contract was put on the table, “There was a huge outrage. A mum came to me and said, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to put food on the table for my children’. There was huge pressure on the staff to sign. We were given an ultimatum: ‘Take it or lose your job’. I couldn’t accept it”.

Capalaba is an area of high unemployment and jobs are scarce. Samarah was fortunate in being able to call on family support during the two months it took her to find another job. Other workers lacked that kind of support and were forced to accept the new conditions.

When Red Flag asked Sarah about the club’s motives, she said: “It’s to make money. It’s just unfortunate they take it out on the workers. They’re not short of money. They’ve done a lot of renovations. The bosses should stop looking after their big fat bonuses and pass their bonuses down the line”.

Who will be next?

The scrapping of penalty rates at a small registered club in a Brisbane suburb has much wider ramifications.

“This situation could be replicated and it would mean the end of penalty rates for workers in what is already one of the lowest paid industries”, Samarah said. “I see huge potential for it to be replicated across other clubs in Capalaba, but also in other clubs around the state and around Australia, and the impact it could have will be huge.”

The bosses are pushing on penalty rates around the country.

In South Australia, the shop assistants’ union signed off on a template agreement with Business SA in March that will allow for the elimination of penalty rates on Saturdays and their halving on Sundays.

In Western Australia, the Restaurant and Catering Association is running a campaign in the Canning by-election to promote the winding back of Sunday penalty rates.

And the Productivity Commission’s recent report on industrial relations recommended the drastic reduction of penalty rates for workers like Samarah in retail, hospitality and entertainment industries.

Union campaign

Our unions are right to take up the issue, but the approach so far is inadequate.

It’s not just that one grubby union, the SDA, has actually helped the bosses get away with wiping out penalty rates.

It’s that the fate of workers in Samarah’s position is being tied to the ALP’s federal election campaign. The word from those who spoke on the platform at the Capalaba Sports Club protest – United Voice, the Queensland Council of Unions and the Labor Party – was that the only way to defend penalty rates is to toss out the Abbott government.

But HospitalityX’s contract is not some left-over WorkChoices agreement. It has been certified by the Fair Work Commission under the ALP’s Fair Work legislation. The Fair Work Commissioner responsible, Peter Sams, is a former NSW ALP state president and NSW Labor Council secretary in the 1990s. And Bill Shorten praised the SDA-Business SA agreement as proof that the Fair Work laws “work”.

Getting rid of Abbott won’t do anything to save workers like those at the Capalaba Sports Club who are being shafted by Labor’s industrial relations laws.

So it’s not enough to say just get rid of Abbott. Defending penalty rates is going to need a resolute campaign to push back against the bosses, the Abbott government and the ALP, who allow such contracts to be rolled out against vulnerable workers.

[To show your support for the workers at the club, please sign the petition.]