Penalty Rates: Working Weekends?

This week the Fair Work Commission rejected an application by the hospitality industry to radically cut weekend penalty rates.

I’d like to think that would be the end of it but according to The Australian employers will now look to the government to “take a more aggressive approach to workplace relations”.


Oh dear, where have we heard that before? Even Masterchef’s George Columbaris, who appears not to be destitute, has weighed in with a whinge.

Having spent 20 years in the hospitality industry I do think I’m well placed to comment on this question. I worked as a waiter for some years. I did this so I could easily find work and leave it and earn enough to save for travel. When I’d had enough of aching arches, drunken prats and rude hungry people, I drifted into the kitchen. I didn’t earn tips (another issue entirely) but then I didn’t have to smile through gritted teeth or put up with lascivious businessmen. The most popular dish in one restaurant I worked in for some time was made with turkey breast. Can you imagine what my buxom younger self (who never revealed cleavage at work) had to endure?

Eventually I became a cook/manager. I worked for some years in three different Fremantle venues and I quickly found that many owners see only the cost of wages. If they are inexperienced (and why people with no experience in catering think they can run a food business I will never understand), they cannot take in the intricacies of the balance sheet. So they will not question set up costs (but we had those chairs!), rent or other overheads.

All they see are lazy staff gobbling up their profits. Perhaps they should try   taking a shift or two on a Saturday night in a busy restaurant. Apart from doing twice the work in half the time, there is life itself to consider. How do you enjoy a social life when you work till 1 or 2 in the morning? Of course after work drinks are always an option but when you finish work do you retire to the bar with the people you have spent the day with, or do you meet your friends or go home?

 If you’re not working till late every Thursday, Friday or Saturday night it’s probably because you worked all day Saturday and will be back in at 7 am on Sunday. New Year’s Day was one of the busiest days of the year and in one establishment I was so grateful to the staff who did turn up I just had to accept that they weren’t hung over, they were probably still drunk having not slept at all.

These are the concessions you make working in hospitality. Many of my students work weekends for the penalties – wisely figuring they can work less hours for more money. It’s been that way here in Australia for as long as I can recall. I know the system isn’t so flexible in the UK. But isn’t that because we are a more egalitarian nation?

ABC Perth Radio invited callers on the subject. It was unsurprising to hear a restaurateur complain about shrinking profit margins. The next caller astutely asked whether anyone should be in business if they couldn’t turn a profit?

The point I really need to make is that the “hospitality” industry is not for wimps or amateurs. As the legendary restaurateur Christine Manfield commented on closing Universal restaurant:

“I don’t think people realise generally how absolutely all-consuming being a restaurateur is and being actively involved in it. It takes a huge amount of emotional and physical energy and you have to be resilient and tough and on top of it the whole time to really drive the business.”


Manfield’s exit from the business is notable for her failure to cite wage costs. She simply had enough and made it clear that her staff were an integral part of her success. Perth is exploding with new restaurants. In Freo we’ve very recently seen the arrival of Deca Bodega and Bread in Common while older favourites like Clancy’s, The Capri, Villa Roma, Little Creatures, Ruocco’s , Barque and others continue to thrive. The questions you need to ask your self are these: Would I be happy working till 2 am every weekend night?

Would I be happy to see my child doing this for no more pay than she or he would have earned working 9- 5 weekdays? Would you be happy to work that hard, while those around you are at play?