Jenny Leong MP on Wage Theft

Jenny Leong MP, Greens Member for Newtown calls out the prevalence of wage theft in the hospitality industry and calls for stronger protections for workers.


I have a confession—I watchMasterChef. I was a fan at the start, but as the years have gone on much has caused me concern and has tainted my viewing. One of those things has been the lack of diversity of the hosts, but far more concerning is the presence of George Calombaris, who has been very publicly exposed as failing to properly pay the people who worked for him. Thousands of people who live in the electorate of Newtown work in hospitality. It is the fourth most common industry of workers in our area, according to the latest census. Like me, many others would have done their time in that industry too. And while George andMasterChef are no longer a thing, what is a thing is that George got sprung underpaying his employees by $7.8 million. Let us be clear: If a worker stole $7.8 million, they would expect to go to jail. But what will happen to George? I am pleased to put on record that the people of Newtown do not support or endorse that kind of behaviour. After reports of the situation first emerged Calombaris opened his Jimmy Grants Souvlaki shop—notably just behind the 7-Eleven—on King Street in Newtown, but it did not last long. It seems that the community I represent is not particularly keen on backing burglary by bosses.

While it may be a bit of a shock to some, to anyone who has worked in the hospitality industry—including so many of those who live in the electorate of Newtown—the extent of this kind of wage theft is utterly unsurprising. I have done my time in restaurants, cafes and bars—waiting on tables of suits and fine diners in Sydney, pouring champagne for celebs and high rollers in London and making my fair share of coffees. While in some cases I was one of the lucky ones who was paid well and treated well, in others I was expected to work for only tips or not to get paid extra on the weekend. For many the situation is much, much worse. The fact that wage theft is so rife in some workplaces is unacceptable. It impacts particularly hard on young people, people in casual or insecure work and people from migrant or non-English-speaking backgrounds.

The "tough on law and order" megaphone we usually hear in this place from Liberals and conservatives in relation to some things—think policing people at festivals or fining pedestrians who jaywalk—seems eerily silent when it comes to cracking down on wage theft. As my Greens colleague in the Federal Parliament Adam Bandt tweeted early today, "If you've got a blue collar this government throws the book at you, but if you've got a white collar they turn a blind eye." In response to the news that Calombaris finally got the chop, Australian Council of Trade Unions President Michele O'Neil said, "Working people have had enough of their wages being stolen and their rights being ignored, especially when those involved have made their fortunes off the back of their workers." For migrant workers the situation is so bad that wage theft is much more often the norm rather than the exception.

There is a clear reason why we are seeing wage theft rise, and that is the increase in casual and insecure work and the ever increasing restrictions placed on trade unions to be able to do their work organising, defending and protecting workers' rights in workplaces. I am a proud member of the Australian Services Union and have always been a member of my union—previously the Community and Public Sector Union and the National Tertiary Education Union. I know many who live in the Newtown electorate and in the inner west are active and proud union members. It used to be that unions could turn up and do spot checks to ensure that workers were being paid correctly. Now they must give 24 hours' notice, meaning that a dodgy employer may have time to cover or hide any wrongdoing. Now what should be basic workers' rights—freedom of association, the right to organise as well as, crucially, the right to strike—are being undermined and, in some cases, criminalised. The Greens oppose those moves and back unions and workers fully, including in their right to organise and their right to strike.

Lots of hospitality workers who know that they are being subjected to wage theft go to the Fair Work Ombudsman, but that body is so underfunded that it only has the capacity to take action against the most serious and major wage thieves, leaving employees of smaller businesses completely on their own or with significant delays. The New South Wales Liberals talk the talk on jobs, but they fail to actually care about the people who have those jobs—the 4,200 people working in the hospitality industry in the electorate of Newtown and the many more across New South Wales. All of those people deserve better protections from the greedy Georges of the world. The best way for us to do that is to strengthen laws against wage theft and reform laws to allow unions to do their work protecting the workers of New South Wales.

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