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The casual service industry is broken



Senator David Leyonhjelm recently thanked men from South Asian backgrounds for delivering his pizza, groceries and online purchases. He praised them for rolling up their sleeves for jobs other Australians refused.

Senator David Leyonhjelm (Michael Masters/Getty Images)This gesture is seriously problematic. The casual service industry is broken and exploitative — it needs to be carefully regulated and constantly audited.

Many people, local and immigrant alike, who are employed in casual jobs leave them because the jobs are full of problems. The Australian Bureau of Statistic (ABS) found 19 per cent of casual employees exited their job during the first 12 months of employment, compared to 7 per cent of employees in more secure forms of work.

There is very little incentive to stay. Last July, Fair Work inspectors forced business to pay $472,000 to 616 employees after their audit of the hospitality industry in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. 72 per cent of businesses had underpaid their employees.

'Wage theft has become a business model in hospitality, in retail and across the workforce,' Jess Walsh, the Victorian secretary of United Voice, told the Guardian this year.

Migrants make up 6 per cent of hospitality employees, and 18 per cent of disputes resolved by the Fair Work Ombudsman involved employees on a visa.

Migrants are seriously disadvantaged because they are rarely informed of their rights as employees or of the in-built system of exploitation in many casual jobs. They are often oblivious of industry pay rates, penalty rates or bodies of assistance like the Fair Work Ombudsman.


"These workers do not need to be thanked for undertaking these jobs. They need to be encouraged to stand up for themselves, to be change-makers in their respective industries."


Physical violence, particularly at night-time, is rife. The union representing fast food employees recently launched its 'No One Deserves a Serve' campaign to counter violence experienced by employees. Out of a survey of a 1000 employees, 87 per cent reported experiencing violence from unhappy customers.

Working in hospitality I have seen several of my colleagues pushed around and shouted at by angry and entitled men. They then have to return home late at night on public transport, increasing their chances of experiencing gender-based violence.

Migrants are also victimised by racial discrimination and unconscious bias in hiring decisions, raises and promotions. At one place of employment, I had been trained to run the bar. After the holiday season, the role had been filled by an American girl who had joined after me.

A similar situation occurred when I was working at a sports stadium. I had been promised a longer shift in six months, but this had not eventuated.

Right before I hit the 12-month mark, I found myself helping a long-shifter. I basically trained them in their job, even though they received more pay and had a longer shift than me. I confronted my supervisor about it and he simply stated that there had been no demand for me by customers. His vague response ignored my past performance and current skillset.

After days of disappointment, I realised I had only seen one other person of colour as a long-shifter, though there had been several short-shifters of diverse backgrounds. It seemed clear this was a result of tokenism, rather than a structure that accommodated diverse employees.

SBS's documentary Is Australia Really Racist? cited that 36.4 per cent of Australians surveyed believe that there are too many immigrants in Australia; 54.1 per cent of culturally and linguistically diverse people reported racism at their place of employment.

Structural racism persists across several industries, even highly skilled ones. Migrant Workers Centre opened in August to tackle underpayment, violence and racism. It has been contacted by employees in anything from cleaning, security and construction to transport and healthcare.

Senator Mehreen Faruqi countered Senator Leyonhjelm by pointing out that migrants are 'actively challenging racism and demanding rights', but this fight cannot be fought alone.

Australian society is so fixated on migrant problems, such as the so-called African gangs and overfilled transportation hubs, that they are oblivious to the problems in their society that exploit migrants and locals alike.

The government should brief incoming migrants about their rights and legal options. After all, it is for the benefit of everyone. Perhaps exposing fraud, exploitation and discrimination should be a core Australian value?

Employees should be trained and encouraged to pursue skills that can be learned from the service industry and transferred into more skilled jobs, such as customer service, presentation and people management. Employees might be retained if the job is portrayed as one of value and that serves a larger purpose.

These workers do not need to be thanked for undertaking these jobs. They need to be encouraged to stand up for themselves, to be change-makers in their respective industries, and to focus on learning and self-development.



Devana SenanayakeDevana Senanayake is a political reporter and radio producer focusing on intercultural racism, immigration, de-colonisation, diasporas and food. In 2017, she won Writer's Victoria Women of Colour Commission for her essay Misplaced in Pop about the misplacement of South Asian actors in Western media. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @dsenanayake16

Main image: Senator David Leyonhjelm (Michael Masters/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Devana Senanayake, casual work, migrants, exploitation



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Existing comments

Another necessary reality check for the many Anglo-Celtic Australians who genuinely believe there is very little racism (if any) in Australia. Racism often has to be experienced before it is recognised. For a person of colour, frequently missing out on promotion or even a job start, is quickly recognised as racism. Being spoken to roughly - loudly, in broken English - in the supermarket by a staff member who assumes you don't understand everyday English is another common experience. Newspapers and television channels quick to identify the origins of people involved in a brawl at, or after, a party - comments picked up and amplified by right-wing politicians, is another indicator, one we all should recognise as racism. Australia is successful as a culturally diverse nation, but we still have a long way to go.

Ian Fraser | 18 December 2018  

Well, let's 'cut to the chase' here, I'm one of the estimated 36.4 per cent of Australians surveyed for a recent SBS documentary who believe that there are too many immigrants in Australia at present, however I'm also in a minority who believe that Australia should double its refugee intake. Additionally, I have sponsored people from India and China to settle in Australia. However, here in Queensland, the problem of far too many immigrants and temporary residents in relation to the current sustainable levels of economic/social infrastructure and services is being worsened by the hordes of people from Sydney and Melbourne who are fleeing those cities because of the adverse social impacts of insufficient infrastructure and services to support both the existing population plus the new immigrant population. Further, Queensland's immigrants from interstate, are also driving up house prices here for both immigrant and resident families. Why? Because they arrive up here with their wallets and purses bulging with cash from superannuation payouts and proceeds of selling their houses in the inflated property markets down south and then outbid new and existing residents in the battle to acquire a home in the State where heaven is fast becoming hell !

Chris Begley | 19 December 2018  

Our interest in our work, be it ever so humble, leads to a satisfaction for a job 'well done'. If we are exploited, belittled or generally not appreciated in our work then little wonder that disillusionment sets in. At the end of the day it is the employers who lose out. Because an employee with a strong work ethic will turn to something else, i.e. using their own initiative to earn a crust. For those workers who need support and encouragement we do indeed need savvy and sensitive employers who can see past the dollar sign to what both can gain.

Pam | 21 December 2018  

Thank you for this timely reminder in the season of peace and joy. Senator Leyonhjelm seems to think it is ok to use people. I would think that true 'liberal democracy ' would uphold the respect and dignity of all. When you work with young people ( and older) who are Being exploited you see how soul-destroying it is. I pray that at the next election everyone thinks very carefully about where their precious vote goes.

Margare Lamb | 21 December 2018  

Thanks Devana; you make some very good points but the system is hardly "broken" when even by your own figures it works pretty well for most people. The sort of exploitation you describe exists but there is an effective Fair Work Ombudsman infrastructure there to weed that out. Be careful what you ask for, because if you make the employment system for the low paid too rigid and inflexible, then jobs will the lost and future ones not created, and the people most disadvantaged and further impoverished will be those that you care most for.

Eugene | 21 December 2018  

And - some of the most aware and kindly people I know frequently refer to individual Australians as being 'culturally and linguistically diverse'. We can be a CALD group, but not a CALD individual, surely? I'm afraid that this usage is a euphemism for saying ' She's a different colour from me'. I'm not Australian born, I speak with a slight accent, but I'd never be identified as CALD. Why? Because I'm an Anglo-Celt, which too many people unconsciously believe is the 'real' Australian. (I was never identified as a New Australian, either). I understand the need for some groups to be identified as diverse - but diverse from what? Normal?

Joan Seymour | 21 December 2018  

Racism is far deeper than that discussed by Devana. I have a daughter named Rahab form the time of Joshua and the battle of Jericho. She is a white Australian. However a friend told her that when she was sending her CV to apply for jobs to include a photo so the prospective employer could see she was white. When she was a Uni student she put her name down to play netball for 6 teams. She is a good player and got no reply. When she put down her nickname 'Harvey', she was inundated with offers of a place on a team. Reason she was not offered a place because others thought she would be a muslim and have to play with a burka.

Gabrielle | 22 December 2018  

In this year, I have twice encountered serious verbal abuse: first by an Indian grocer woman who publicly humiliated a Bangladeshi male delivery driver - went on for more than 5 minutes while I hid behind a shelf in the store - about something over which he had no control; secondly in a Lebanese grocer the shopkeeper shamed a Sri Lankan shelf-packer. On both occasions, I wanted to say something but felt that it would compound the shame and embarrassment of the people being yelled at. Any thoughts on how to make a positive contribution at the time to such a damaging incident? Thanks for highlighting this issue.

cecile yazbek | 22 December 2018  

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