Politics

Workers At A Popular Melbourne Cafe Say They Were Fired After Asking For Legal Pay

The workers' shifts were cut as soon as they complained.

Young workers protested outside popular Melbourne cafe Barry today, alleging that their employers have been illegally underpaying them well below the award rate, and failing to pay penalty rates.

When they approached the cafe owners with their concerns, several workers were told their upcoming shifts had been cancelled, leaving them unsure if they still have a job.

Staff at Barry say they were paid a flat rate of $18 per hour, and that they never received penalty rates for weekends and public holidays. The award rate for casual cafe staff is $24.41 for weekdays, and $29.30 for weekends.

Waitress Anna Langford told Junkee that though she’s worked at Barry on and off since early 2017, she only realised she was being underpaid when a friend told her to check the award rate through the Fair Work pay calculator.

The Fair Work website also alerted her to the fact that her breaks were allegedly illegally short — only 15 minutes per day, regardless of shift length. She got in touch with other workers, and together they sent an email to Barry’s owners, siblings Steve and Anne Petroulias, asking for a group meeting to discuss the problem.

“They didn’t respond to the email straight away,” Anna said, “but they started to interrogate us about it individually on shifts, and refused to have a group meeting with us — they said they’d only talk individually.”

“We said we’re not going to do that, because no one’s safe then. I guess we thought we had strength in numbers, that if we did it as a group no one would get fired.”

The cafe staff reached out to the Young Workers Centre, which helped them draft a new email to management including including information on award rates and legal requirements.

That email was sent last Friday afternoon. A few hours later, Anna and another employee received texts from management letting them know that their upcoming shifts were cancelled indefinitely — a message Anna took to mean she had been fired.

barry cafe wage theft

A text Anna received letting her know her shift had been cancelled, shortly after she sent an email requesting legal wages. Supplied: Anna Langford

Shortly after that, she received an email from management in response to the group letter, which said “you and the other staff agreed each and every one of you the rate that you would be paid”, and mentioned the perks workers received, such as free meals and coffee.

barry cafe wage theft

A screenshot of the response Anna received after requesting legal wages. Supplied: Anna Langford.

In total, Anna knows of four workers who were fired or had their shifts indefinitely cut following their request for legal wages. As far as she knows, management have not made any attempt to amend wages or issue back pay.

Barry’s owners did not respond to Junkee’s requests for comment, but told the ABC that they would make amends for any errors.

“I had a look on Google, and it said the average rate was $15 to $17 an hour, or something like that. And I was under the impression that $18 was the minimum rate,” he said.  “If there is a mistake, I will correct it.”

Anna and a number of other former workers, along with union supporters, gathered outside Barry today to protest the cafe’s response, calling on the owners to pay workers a legal wage.

“I guess part of the aim of today was alerting the public to what’s happening, because Barry has such a big reputation in Northcote,” Anna told Junkee. “It’s the busiest cafe on High Street pretty much every day of the week, and they can’t even pay us a liveable wage.”

Keelia Fitzpatrick, a coordinator and solicitor at the Young Workers Centre, told Junkee the Centre is looking closely at taking legal action against Barry on behalf of the workers.

“The brazen behaviour of this employer towards their workers shows how entrenched the problem of wage theft is in our system and why it is so important that this behaviour is criminalised.”

“This company knew that their workers were owed higher wages and deliberately chose to avoid paying them.”

“The workers tried to address the issue in a reasonable and friendly way and were met with contempt”.

Barry management did not respond to Junkee’s requests for comment by time of publication.