Post #14 – They’re Called Penalty Rates For A Reason

My girlfriends’ parents recently traveled out from England to meet us and have a holiday in ‘sunny’ Oz – instead it pissed down rain the whole time they were here. But on the last day of their trip Down Under, the Lord turned the thermostat up, parted the clouds and put on a typical sultry summers’ evening. So for their last supper we went out for dinner, to a restaurant in Darling Harbour called Cyren Bar Grill Seafood. The food was decent enough and the service was fine – with some of the best views of Sydney’s shimmering skyline you can get. A sour taste was awaiting us though; for when the bill came my girlfriends’ father noticed something foreign on the bill – a ‘Sunday surcharge’.

It’s something I personally don’t remember seeing listed on the menu, nor anywhere in the restaurant – and it definitely was not something that we were informed about by the staff. We’re not talking about small change here either – it equated to over $20 for the four of us. I didn’t ask for specifics on the charge (as it was not the time nor the place) but it’s something I’d never personally seen on a bill before, and I was taken aback. I proudly told him that it was because we pay decent penalty rates to our workers on the weekend (compared to similar industrialised nations), but I personally felt embarrassed about the incident and uttered to him in my puzzled state that it was just something that we do, and that it was standard practice. But was it? Why had I not experienced this before, and why were we not informed before ordering? Do I simply just go to the wrong (or right) restaurants? In light of the current talk about changes to penalty rates and industrial relations in general I thought this was an area that really needs picking apart. So here’s what a bit of digging has found me…

According to the ACCC what happened on Sunday to us doesn’t seem legal. It may very well have been listed on the menu in fine print somewhere that there was a surcharge (but as I said, none of us noticed it), but even that – according to the ACCC – is illegal. They state:

Restaurants and cafés are free to set surcharges, but they must provide consumers with a prominent single total price for goods and services, where they are able to be quantified at that time. This can be as simple as a separate menu or price column for the surcharge days.

This means the practice of putting a note such as ’10 per cent surcharge applies on public holidays’ at the bottom of the menu but without the surcharge being included in a single price for the item is in breach of the law.

So it seems that on this occasion, the restaurant well and truly misled us and ripped us off. Just to reiterate, the name of this deceiving restaurant is Cyren Bar Grill Seafood. Write that down. So what does my bitching and whining about a misleading restaurant have to do with industrial relations? Well, my concern is consumers baulk at such surcharges (especially when they are applied once the bill is processed) and incorrectly take it out on the bar staff and the waiters/waitresses – some of whom happen to be the lowest paid workers in this country. So my argument is two-fold. I’m saying that workers deserve their penalty rates – and restaurants have the right to apply surcharges, but they must be up-front about it. Furthermore, they must past those extra earnings from the surcharge on to their workers, not pocket it for themselves.

Recently Prime Minister Tony Abbott has convinced himself that he’s not quite unpopular enough with the electorate and has made grunts and noises towards industrial relations ‘reform’. What reform means for a man like Abbott means something very different to paupers like you and I. The phrase ‘WorkChoices 2.0’ has been bandied around by media commentators to describe the reforms Abbott and the Coalition hope to put in place whilst they’re still in office. To be fair, neither the unions, the government, the media talking heads or yours truly know exactly what kind of changes will attempt to be made – and we won’t until the Productivity Commission releases their report. However, going off Abbott’s line about weekend work and penalty rates I have a rough idea where this is going:

If you don’t want to work on  a weekend, fair enough, don’t work on a weekend, but if you do want to work on a weekend and lots of people, particularly young people, particularly students, would love to work on the weekend, you want to see the employers open to provide jobs.

Ok, let’s get a couple of things straight here Mr Abbott. I’m currently a student, I’m currently a young casual worker, I currently work weekend shifts, and I was on the minimum wage (or bordering the minimum wage) only a few years ago. I also depend heavily on penalty rates from work to make ends meet. So if you want to talk to somebody who actually lives what you’re talking there Mr Abbott – I’m your man! Let’s get one thing straight – I don’t want to work on a weekend, nor do I love working on a weekend. I work on a weekend because if I don’t I can’t pay my rent, I can’t fill up my car and I can’t afford my utilities or food for the week. It pains me to work on a weekend for a few reasons:

1. More work – I generally have more work on the weekends. We aren’t operating with a full team and this means I have to step up and assist in areas I normally don’t venture in to. When the going gets tough and I’m snowed in with a large backlog of work, the standard support structures aren’t necessarily there on the weekends. It can sometimes be unbelievably busy with no reprieve.

2. Less time – I have missed out on birthdays, family events, engagements and most importantly spending time with my girlfriend because of work. My girl works long hours on a weekday (sometimes more than 12 hours) and the weekend is the only time we have to spend together. If I work weekends, this quality time is sacrificed.

3. Availability – University is only open on the weekdays. I can’t change that Mr Abbott. I work on the weekend because I have very little choice in the matter if I want to continue my studies and better myself. If you can think of any other way I can get around working weekends, I’m all ears Mr Abbott. What I’ve just detailed here is my personal situation, but this applies to many other people I know in similar circumstances.

So Mr Abbott, do people like you think the bar staff serving you and your tipsy, rich wanker-banker mates on the North Shore in your posh, local Yacht Club on a Sunday arvo are there because they like your company? Or better yet because they want to observe how well that sweater that you have loosely tied around your neck syncs with your white polo, Chino pants and tanned boat shoes? Hell no! We wanna get paid motherfuckers!!

You and your business mates (past and present) may have already watered down things like collective bargaining, The Harvester Judgement and dismissal laws in this country; but this is one thing is way too sacred for Aussies to bear losing – penalty rates.

The right-wing Murdoch rag The West Australian ran with the headline ‘Penalty Rates Keep Shops Shut’ the other day – as if the fact that businesses were closed on Australia Day was a terrible crime that deprived us of our god-given, inalienable democratic rights. But do they really keep ‘shops shut’? Further reading of the article shows this isn’t really the case and even the Australian Hospitality Association WA chief executive Bradley Woods concedes that ‘more venues had surcharges [compared to last year] but the public generally accepted them’. So just to clarify, more businesses are attempting to open their doors for trade on weekends and public holidays and are (as they are allowed within their rights) charging more for the experience. So if business (most likely begrudgingly) accept these new T&C’s of doing businesses (and they must be still turning a profit, otherwise why else would they be open?), and if the workers are getting paid a decent wage for working on a weekend or a public holiday, and the public is generally fine with paying a higher price for the opportunity – why change it? It seems like a win-win for everyone involved. So despite what the tabloids, the government and the business lobbyists whine about, the evidence just isn’t there to suggest that there’s anything wrong with the current set-up. Or to adopt a phrase Abbott likes to use (evidently when backing Australia’s continuing ties to the British monarchy): “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it”. I concur Abbott, I concur.

So back to the restaurant in focus, Cyren Bar Grill Seafood. I will concede that minor changes to penalty rates is something we need to talk about in this country, and no topic should ever be out of bounds when everybody involved is fair and reasonable in their discussions about the matter. But despite our constant trend towards a more fluid 24/7 lifestyle, we must also keep in mind that for most Aussies (yes, that includes waiters, burger-flippers, bar staff and glassies) a lazy Sunday is still revered and treasured. As the Fair Work Commission omitted last time they further stripped back penalty rates:

But the majority judgment [by the Fair Work Commission] also rejected the argument by the restaurant and catering industry that, for casual workers, working on Sundays was no different to working on Saturdays.

“Working on Sundays involves a loss of a day of family time and personal interaction upon which special emphasis is placed by Australian society,’’ the judgment said.

So next time, if you do feel like getting snarly about the excess hidden surcharges the restaurant has sneakily scrawled on your bill, don’t take it out on the waiters or the bar staff, they’re already paid a pittance (and I can assure you, the surcharge wasn’t their idea). Instead, try directing your anger at their fat-cat owners of the establishment that is attempting to rort you; ya know, those fat-cats’ catching the sun in the backyard of their mansion on a lazy Sunday by their Olympic-sized swimming pool. These businessmen know full-well that they’re ripping off unsuspecting customers, but don’t care because they don’t ever have to deal with the repercussions. In the case of the Darling Harbour restaurant, the fact that it’s a hot-spot for foreign tourists and the inner-city monied class means that a dodgy surcharge will rarely be challenged – but it certainly doesn’t make it right. These business owners also know full-well that their continued calls to slash workers pay will negatively affect the most vulnerable workers in our economy, but yet again the business class doesn’t care – they are drunk on the power and laziness derived from benefiting off other peoples’ labour. So support decent penalty rates for those that are the backbone of our economy – those in the service industry; the Lord knows they need it.

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