Hospitality workers are being ripped off millions of dollars by bosses while the government turns a blind eye. 

A recent blitz by the Fair Work ombudsman found that in just one night and on just three restaurant strips, bosses had stolen nearly half a million dollars from workers. The audit targeted three popular areas for dining in three different cities: Victoria Street in Melbourne, Glebe Point Road in Sydney and Fortitude Valley in Brisbane. 

The results prove what anyone working in hospitality will tell you: we’re getting ripped off. 

Of the 243 businesses audited, more than 100 were found to be non-compliant with the award, and 72 percent were in outright breach of workplace laws. 

In numerical terms, $471,904 of wages were calculated to have been stolen from 616 workers. Imagine the media flurry if 616 workers had all decided to pinch $766 from their employers. There would be immediate arrests, and the bosses would be up in arms calling for stronger sentencing and zero tolerance. 

Yet only one company will face any serious legal action as a result of the blitz. More than 140 others got away with on-the-spot fines, cautions or notices to comply. 

This is just a small snapshot of the hospitality industry. It raises the question: If the store fronts along just three streets had stolen almost half a million dollars, how much money is being made from wage theft in hospitality nationally? 

Jess Walsh, the Victorian secretary of the union that covers hospitality workers, United Voice, has referred to wage theft as “the business model” of cafes and restaurants. Across Australia, the hospitality and fast food industry makes up approximately one-third of serious cases of wage theft currently before the courts. 

In addition to the recent blitz, the Fair Work ombudsman is currently involved in investigating more than 1000 businesses suspected of wage theft. And underpayment of wages is not the only workers’ rights violation of which these companies are guilty. Unpaid superannuation, denial of breaks and other conditions and the right to permanent work are also part of the ombudsman’s investigation. 

As hospitality workers are already keenly aware, bosses pay little heed to the law. Yet there will be no royal commission into their crimes, no sensationalist Murdoch headlines drumming up fear and hatred for restaurant owners. Hospitality industry leaders will not be called on to denounce the “bad apples” in their community. 

Instead, the government and authorities will continue to turn a blind eye to the well-known dodgy practices of the industry, while workers pay the price. 

The 616 workers who will receive back pay as a result of the ombudsman’s audit will no doubt welcome it. But to hold bosses to account across the sector and in the long run, strong unions, active rank and file organisation and a willingness to stand up and speak out are sorely needed.