Interview: Hospo workers fighting back

Red Flag spoke to unionist and cafe worker Anna Langford about fighting wage theft and a new United Voice initiative to introduce unionism to hospitality workers. 

What happened at Barry cafe?

I started working at Barry in February last year, and when I took the job, I didn’t realise I was being underpaid. I was told I would be paid $18 an hour as a flat rate and I didn’t question it … but then friends started telling me to check the Fair Work website pay calculator and check the wage I legally should have been getting. I was astonished to find out that I was being underpaid by at least $6 on weekdays and $10 on weekends. 

After talking with the other staff, 10 of us put our names on an email requesting a group meeting with our bosses to discuss our pay and rights. At the time, that was just about all the front-of-house staff. Our bosses responded by interrogating and bullying us individually on shift and refusing again and again to meet with us as a group. Eventually, after seeing we were getting nowhere, we got in touch with Young Workers Centre, who drafted another email for us to send to our bosses listing all the correct rates of pay and break times, and requesting that the issues be solved as soon as possible.

We thought that the strength in numbers would be a safeguard against any individual getting fired. Now, all together, five of us have either been fired on shift or had our shifts cancelled without any reason provided. One of us was fired on shift just two days after we sent the first email. Myself and another waitress received texts cancelling our shifts the night that we sent the second group email. This was when we realised we had to escalate things and go public with our story. 

When did you get the union involved? 

We had heard about Hospo Voice before through their highlighting of wage theft in the hospitality industry in high profile restaurants like Chin Chin and Vue de Monde. Hospo Voice got involved when we decided to organise a rally outside Barry to expose them to the general public. Their support was what made the rally a success – they were able to mobilise a lot of people incredibly fast through their social media networks and tapping into the anger that so many young people feel who are exploited in the same way. 

I had never been a union member. I didn’t know much about unions at all. But after seeing the power of unions like Hospo Voice to create change and mobilise such a large supportive community, my entire view of unions has changed. I now see how necessary they are for all workers to be part of. 

What’s the new Hospo Voice union about? 

Hospo Voice is Australia’s first digital union for hospitality workers. Hospo workers are some of the most exploited in the workforce, and because they’re usually young people, often migrants, and dispersed across tens of thousands of workplaces and constantly switching jobs, it had been hard to build a union. Being online means hospo workers across the country can connect and share tools. It’s about workers supporting each other and building a group of activists to put employers exploiting their workers under direct pressure. 

It seems that hospitality bosses rely on workers not knowing their rights, or being too scared to speak out. Did you come up against these issues? 

Definitely. I personally would have been too scared to approach my bosses alone; us doing it as a group meant we could all support each other throughout it. As soon as we sent the first email, our bosses started bringing in lots of trial workers to get ready to replace us. It all made me feel so disposable, which was what our bosses wanted – they wanted us to feel unimportant to them and to know we were easily replaceable if we dared to stand up for our rights. After my experience, it is clear to me that the entire industry needs an overhaul. The onus should not be on workers to fight for their rights and legal pay one cafe at a time – we need a system where we can apply for a hospitality job and expect that legal pay and rights will be standard practice. Right now it is the complete opposite. 

What do you have to say to all the dodgy cafe owners of Australia?

As hospo workers, we used to joke about how exploited we were, because we knew it was happening everywhere and didn’t see it changing any time soon. Dodgy bosses depended on us feeling too scared to stand up for ourselves or not even knowing our rights in the first place. This is no longer the case. Your businesses thrive because of our labour – we are the face of Melbourne’s world-famous food and drink industry. If you want to keep enjoying the success and profits that come from that, you will start treating us with the respect we deserve and paying us our livable wages.

What do you have to say to all the hospitality workers who are in a similar to position to you?

As a hospo worker, when I knew I was being underpaid and overworked, I felt so powerless and alone, but also with the odd feeling that thousands of others would be feeling the same thing. Now with Hospo Voice, we’ve all found each other and are ready to stick up for one another and fight for our rights. Join the union. We need everyone in to build a strong union with the power to change this industry.