Fighting wage theft all in a day’s work

If you work in hospitality, you expect degrading treatment. For young women, revealing uniforms, unwanted advances and condescension are part of the job. Last week my former boss at a swanky cafe in Brisbane’s CBD, Gary, was taught that his punching bags can hit back.

Gary employed only women and was in the cafe all hours. Like many bosses, he was obsessive and incompetent. Public humiliation of employees was routine. In the storeroom downstairs you could find milk, coffee lids and crying staff members.

I quit two weeks ago, having found new work. Gary didn’t take it well. As punishment, he withheld my last week’s wages.

I was owed $218. That’s pocket change to a business owner, but rent and food for a student like me.

Wage theft like this usually goes ignored. So Gary’s alarm was palpable when more than a dozen unionists showed up at his cafe at 9.30am. We had prepared leaflets and chants such as: “Hey, Gary, quit this robbing, or next thing you know, you’ll be sobbing!” But neither the leaflets nor the chants were needed. As soon as I approached the counter, with two unionists filming, Gary caved. He lied, saying he’d always intended to pay me.

For good measure, I had published Gary’s phone number online. Workers from all over Australia inundated him with calls and messages, demanding that I be paid. They were enthusiastic; Gary could have been anybody’s boss.

At first he told those messaging him to “get their facts straight”. After eight hours, he was insisting that I would be paid in the evening. Minutes after the cafe closed for business that day, I received a pay slip and my wages.

Hospitality bosses aren’t accustomed to being challenged. That’s why they feel confident to steamroll over basic workers’ rights. The sight of union shirts had Gary singing a different tune. If you’ve got the guts to fight, you might just win.