The 'Unlock Hospitality' campaign is cooked

14 October 2020
Alan Gomez

Someone needs to order Victoria’s bosses a round of babycinos: these guys never stop whinging. Last weekend, 78 “members of Victoria’s business community” took out full-page ads in all the Sunday papers decrying the “Orwellian nightmare which Victoria has become”. This week, Sorrento hotelier Julian Gerner will take the Victorian government to the High Court over its denial of “our basic freedoms”.

“This is not what we signed up for and is inconsistent with a free society, representative democratic government and civilised living,” Gerner said in a statement about his case.

Yet, as was pointed out by researchers at the Burnet Institute in August 2020, the bosses’ “Orwellian nightmare” of lockdown and restrictions in Victoria prevented an additional 20,000 coronavirus cases in this state, as well as three to four times more deaths than the current toll.

Yet for bosses like Gerner, thousands of deaths is a reasonable price to get his businesses up and running again. Gerner is one of dozens of signatories to the “Unlock Hospitality Now!” campaign. Melburnians might have seen their pink signs plastered across cafes, bars and restaurants around the city.

The signatories are some of the state’s wealthiest and best-known restaurateurs and hospitality bosses. In a September 2020 open letter to the premier Daniel Andrews launching the campaign, these bosses assure us that they don’t take the health of Victorians lightly. They just believe—in defiance of the state’s public health recommendations—that they can open sooner.

Never mind the fact that the latest research from around the world shows that small indoor venues like pubs and bars are more conducive to the airborne virus’ spread: these bosses want indoor dining on the menu.

In a video statement, one of the signatories Paul Dimattina says, “Hospitality workers are suffering. Sixty-eight thousand people have lost their jobs.” Excuse me if I take Dimattina and co’s concern for their workers’ welfare with more than a flake of Maldon sea salt.

One campaign signatory, Teage Ezard, was found in 2019 to have been “significantly underpaying” staff through unpaid overtime. Chefs across his restaurants regularly worked more than 60 hours per week. Another “Unlock Hospitality Now!” signatory, Chris Lucas, was found to have underpaid staff by $340,000 in a single year. While the millionaire Lucas was building his seventh restaurant, one of his former employees describes being underpaid $9,500 through regularly working 20 unpaid overtime hours a week.

Dechlan, a Melbourne chef and Hospo Voice union member, told Red Flag he was equally skeptical of the bosses’ “Unlock Hospitality” campaign: “The ‘Unlock’ campaign is really about bosses wanting to get back to exploiting workers. They couldnt give two shits about the people they employ”.

For Dechlan and hospitality workers like him, the pandemic has only exacerbated existing issues within the industry: “The majority of the jobs lost wont be coming back just from reopening. In my case at least, the pandemic has not only highlighted the insecurity of the industry, but has heightened it… [with] people accepting worse or little pay just to try and stay employed when we reopen.”

Indeed, the “Unlock” campaign does nothing to address the livelihood of workers beyond having venues open. In fact, it takes place as workers experience a reduction in JobKeeper and JobSeeker, while the Victorian government has just announced $3 billion in business support, specifically targeting the hospitality industry.

So what is behind this campaign? A group calling themselves “Change Victoria” is said to have “partnered” with “Unlock Hospitality”. Yet “Unlock” has no independent online presence of its own: all links lead back to Change Victoria’s website and social media accounts.

Who is Change Victoria? They claim to be a new not-for-profit association that “believes in more jobs, greater prosperity, smaller government, less regulation, and support for the important role of the private business sector in our state”. Scroll down the page, however, and you’ll find Change headed up by Deborah Henderson and Stuart Eaton—both Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) alumni.

The IPA is an ideologically hard-right think tank associated with the Liberal Party. They have campaigned hard against both the lockdown and the Andrews government, as well as championing other right wing touchstones like climate scepticism, opposition to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the battle against the so-called nanny state.

Yet for hospo bosses and their friends from the IPA, some freedoms are more important than others. Their freedom to generate profit through exploiting their workers outweighs the freedom of ordinary people to live safely and prevent the risk of contagion of a deadly virus in the community.

Of course, left wing people can and should criticise the Andrews government for its role in managing this pandemic. But this bosses’ campaign to open up ahead of time is just plain cooked.

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