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Check your privilege, burger bros

Young workers who stand up for their rights aren’t self-entitled or whingey – they’re brave and smart. -Felicity Sowerbutts, Director, Young Workers Centre

It is extremely challenging to look in the mirror and confront the reality of your privilege; the fact that where and when you were born, the material circumstances of your parents, the colour of your skin, your gender, your body, your sexuality, and even dumb luck – all played some role in the success you enjoy. Particularly if you are wealthy or successful, it is comforting to believe in the inherent justice of the universe and meritocracy because in a meritocracy, not only do you deserve your wealth and happiness, but others with less also to some degree deserve their unhappiness.

This was the thesis of a podcast, and a follow-up article in the Sydney Morning Herald, featuring hospitality employers Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham: youngsters working in hospo are whining, self-entitled and lazy.

They use mental health as an “excuse” for their poor work ethic. They are obsessed with work-life balance – which is “one of the most dangerous terms young people have been introduced to”. And their entitlement and softness is all the harder to stomach because this generation haven’t had to suffer through an era that normalised verbal abuse, such as kitchen staff bellowing insults at wait staff, or employers using national broadsheets to smear their entire generation, for example. TL;DR: “kids today don’t know how lucky they are”. The whole podcast was basically the Four Yorkshiremen sketch, but in havaianas and dad caps.

Let’s provide some context. According to research by Hospo Voice, 85% of hospitality workers had their hours cut or were not working at all at the height of the pandemic. A lot of them couldn’t qualify for welfare because of their temporary or casual work status, or because of their visa status, so 12% had to access a foodbank or charity. Almost all workers considered mental health a real problem in hospitality, and 89% of young women had experienced workplace sexual harassment.

Smyth and Graham, in the grand tradition of employers, position mental health as an individual responsibility that can be solved with yoga and screen-free time. Presumably it’s that depth of insight that earned Smyth and Graham the title of hospitality “gurus” twice in the SMH article. But jokes aside, one bleak reminder of COVID is that a worker’s mental health is contingent on a lot more than whether you’re getting yelled at by a hot- headed chef.

For most workers, it’s impossible to enjoy health and wellbeing in the absence of having secure employment and known income, and it’s well known that young people working in hospitality are particularly vulnerable, employed predominantly as casuals and/or off the books. You’re also unlikely to be feeling #blessed and happy with your hospo gig if you’re being overworked and underpaid, which a huge number of young workers are. 82% of hospo workers have experienced wage theft in hospitality.

But paying your workers correctly impacts your bottom line. Putting on enough staff so that your workers aren’t shell-shocked by the end of a shift costs money. Taking a real stand against gendered violence in your bar means kicking out paying customers. In the end, secure jobs, fair wages, and workplace safety are all far less palatable to employers than band-aid corporate wellness programs, or better yet, slurs against an entire generation of workers.

If anyone could be accused of being whining and self-entitled, perhaps it’s the two burger empire bosses with apparently no understanding of their legal obligations to the health and wellbeing of their staff, and zero empathy for the suffering that young hospo workers have experienced over the past six months. Right now, around the country, hospitality workers are joining in union to fight for more robust, secure work, and for legal pay and entitlements, so they can keep working sustainably in a COVID/post-COVID world. That takes courage, effort, and resilience. And that’s an ethos we should be championing for our next generation of leaders, not denigrating.


Felicity Sowerbutts is the Director of Young Workers Centre, a one-stop shop for young workers who want to learn more about their rights at work or who need assistance in resolving workplace issues. The Young Workers team of lawyers, organisers, educators and researchers seek to empower young people working in Victoria with the knowledge and skills needed to end workplace exploitation and insecurity.

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