The Flexible Cog Industry

Dispatches from eight years in and out of restaurants.

The listing asked for experienced waitstaff, and that was me. But when I turned up for a trial and was seated, someone asked if I worked in the front or back of house. Nobody seemed to know I was coming; the staff peered at me askance, blank unknowing. It was a harbinger all of it, red flags rising up to full mast. A wiser me would’ve turned and left but the cash in poorer me’s bank account was slimming, so I made three mediocre coffees, wrote down my number, and abruptly left without a yes or a no. Next. At 7pm I was texted a roster with my name and forty hours next to it, starting early the next morning: Congratulations, you’re hired… for now.

There were no penalty rates or weekends off, and ultimately no surprises. “The management is kinda dodgy. We never get payslips and don’t always know when we’ll get paid,” my coworker said, throwing the doors open on my first day. Over the next week, barely a shift passed when a smiling face didn’t mosey up to the counter to announce they were here for a trial and, oh, you didn’t know I was coming in…? Most hung around for the awkwardest hour of their lives then vanished, never to be seen again. My bosses were evidently desperate for staff, so I sleuthed around trying to figure out where the previous ones had gone in such hurried exodus.

I learned: 
- people had been accused of stealing and were fired
- others were scolded for taking sick days and had their hours quietly slashed
- one person had been on a two-week trial since mid-December. It was mid-January
- the rest plainly jumped ship

And I surveyed the conditions, taking them all down like a checklist.

I was there often: because I was given a roster without actually accepting employment, because I hadn’t negotiated my hours or pay rate, I worked about 45 hours a week. Mostly I was saddled with eight to ten hour shifts and twenty hour weekends - hours that sap your energy and put a wall between you and your friends. All these conditions assumed a stabbing irony when irate customers made mountains out of molehills. What do you mean you’ve run out of decaf? Stab. What do you mean you’ve run out of avocados? Stab. What do you mean an iced matcha frappe has failed to materialise at the click of my fingers? Stab, stab, stab.

I’ve taken an oddly surgical precision to my selection of hospitality employers that turn out to be suspect - the ones that expect a lot of your time but reward it with little, happily calling you in on days off and sending you away after a couple of hours on others. The fault is partly mine: I work hard, don’t often argue, and perhaps most importantly, I know there’s a queue of job-hungry students willing to tag in when one is fired for being too rowdy. How easily these characteristics are confused with an invitation for more responsibility at the same hourly rate. Hours are long and the work is repetitive, precisely the kind that fills your subconscious in that half-awake state as you try to sleep. It’s a strange dissonance, coming of age in both an increasingly time-poor society and an industry that places little premium on your time.

I don’t write this as a screed against my employers, but a check-up based on a few symptoms now that I’ve put roughly eight years and 11 casual jobs in the industry behind me. The list of venues I’ve worked in is long: a burger house, countless coffee shops, restaurants, a wine bar in the tropics that chilled bottles of red to an approximation of the room temperature in France. It is varied, but the view in the rear vision mirror is almost universally grim.

When the penalty rate debate surfaced in August last year, it was a helpful touchstone of what hospitality looks like from the viewpoint of people who haven’t recently worked in it. The Productivity Commission recommended lowering Sunday penalties to the Saturday threshold because businesses are going bust, and the economy is awake every day of the week. Another narrative holds that more jobs will be created if this recommendation is honoured. You just have to pay the people working them less.

On the ground, things looked different. At the cafe where I was working as the debate uncoiled, my co-workers and I weren’t allotted breaks during shifts of up to nine hours. Penalty rates were, as they have tended to be, a pipe dream. New employees rarely survived more than eight weeks; it’s easier to source more adaptive staff than properly train the ones you’ve already hired.

I was 21 and my job requirements included flexible availability, 6am starts and weekends at a flat rate of $17/hr. For those playing along at home, this is significantly below the $23.09 award wage for a casual employee 20 years and over, a gulf that my employer chalked up to their contractual payment system. (My wage was later amended to meet the award. On the other hand, I was messaged by a friend who works there while I was writing this piece. She’s still on $17/hr.) This meant I would have to lodge an invoice for the work I did week-by-week, freeing my employers of their obligation to pay super. I think it’s also likely that I would’ve lost a portion of my income to tax at the end of financial year. But who knows, really. Not knowing seemed like part of the deal.

That summer I fell into a ditch. The timing was impeccably poor, as it almost always is with circumstances that beget situational depression: I had just spent a lot of money having my wisdom teeth out ($2500); huge hailstones blew out the windshield of my car about two days afterwards ($600). It was about a week later that I went from working 20 hours (about $460/wk before tax) to four ($92/wk). Business had slowed, see, so my hours dissolved without so much as a warning. I was lucky that my Youth Allowance (~$400/fortnight) could cover most of my day-to-day expenses. Still, I spent the summer taping sliced up bin liners across my windshield (30c per application).

These might seem like small problems, but they can be prevented with a solution that will take no skin off any back: give your employees notice that you can no longer provide them with a consistent income, and let them set up camp elsewhere. The worker ideally suited to the current system is perhaps an autonomous robot with four or five arms - tirelessly on call when you need them, switched off when not.

Still, my favourite anecdote comes from a bistro I worked at for two or three months between more stable jobs. This restaurant was known for its hearty food and casual vibe, but the scenes backstage - where staff were regularly goaded to be better in vague doublespeak - were anything but. I worked split shifts and would occasionally arrive for lunch service to find a new face on trial behind the bar. If that person made the cut they would be asked if they wanted a dinner shift that evening — as backpackers hungry for money, they almost always did. The person initially penciled in to work that night would be called and told they no longer had a job. I would come back at night and smile superficially at the unfamiliar face, wondering if they knew their arrival had marked someone else’s departure. On days off I wondered if people were being trialed behind my back. Was my employer constantly on the lookout for someone better than me?

Recent evidence suggests I’m not alone. People take satellite relationships with their employer, stripped of benefits, security and safety nets: all the traditional tenets of employment are being shirked. Employment is so casualised and so tenuous that people are fired for asking for time off for a holiday. These are consequences of fierce economic competition in the free market, rising as regulation shrinks and looks set to keep shrinking. The competition is infectious, such that co-workers become competitors and the workplace is transformed from a space of co-operation and friendliness to one whose sole purpose is the creation of wealth.

If you fall afoul of the rules and are fired, then you are no longer a human with bills and rent to pay, but a used cog who is “let go” or will be called “if any more shifts come up” because a better fit has been found. Flexibility is key — flexibility to work at the rate your employer chooses, flexibility to keep an upbeat personality as your co-workers are dismissed for being merely adequate at their jobs, and flexibility to support the seven day economy. If goods and services are readily available every day of the week, the story goes, then we should be too.

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