Hospitality is an industry with notoriously bad working conditions. Wage theft is rampant, and casualisation is the norm. Many people employed in cafes and bars work anti-social hours without the benefit of penalty rates. Bosses rule the roost and workers generally feel hopeless.
A large part of the reason why hospitality has such bad working conditions is because of the lack of a strong union presence. A new union, Hospo Voice, was recently launched in Melbourne in an attempt to fill this gap.
Hospo Voice describes itself as a “digital” union. It is run under the auspices of United Voice, the existing union for hospitality workers. In reality it is a part of United Voice, but is based around a new website. Hospo Voice is aimed at young workers with bold campaign slogans and a $9.99 per month membership fee similar to a Netflix subscription.
The idea of a digital union is a new one. Instead of a model of trade unionism that prioritises face-to-face contact between union organisers and workers, Hospo Voice is more a set of online tools designed to help workers ensure they are getting paid properly.
The website has tools to check that you’re getting the right hourly rate, a diary to log incidents of harassment, and a tracker to log your hours worked in case of any pay disputes with management. Information is also available about your entitlements and rights.
Hospo Voice members are paying less union dues than United Voice members, and it seems that they subsequently have less access to the full suite of services that United Voice has traditionally offered. While the online tools will be of great assistance, on their own they will not be enough to build a strong union presence in the hospitality industry.
The reason people aren’t joining unions is not because of a technology gap, or because union dues cost too much. The key reason people do not join is because they are not convinced that unions actually work.
Living standards are going backwards, and generally speaking unions have not been able to secure decent pay rises or improved working conditions in recent years. This is a problem that afflicts the entire union movement, not just hospitality unions. The reason for this is primarily political.
Unions have moved away from the method of fighting over the amount of wealth going to profits versus wages and have mostly accommodated to the bosses’ idea that we all have “joint interests”.
But workers and bosses do not have joint interests. One can only get ahead at the expense of the other, and for years the bosses have had it all their way. Unions must return to the class struggle methods of fighting for a bigger share of the wealth we create in order to be relevant again.
Hospo Voice has organised some dynamic snap protests out the front of businesses that have been caught out underpaying their staff. These actions have been good steps forward and have sometimes resulted in backpay being won.
While recovering stolen wages is important, our goal needs to be dealing with wage theft at its source and forcing all employers to adhere to the laws and minimum standards that are in place. To do that effectively, workers need to be organised in their own workplaces and connected to networks of delegates and organisers that can draw workplaces together.
If the online platform of Hospo Voice is meant to facilitate the building of new grassroots networks and structures, that would be welcome. Online tools like Hospo Voice, if coupled with a fighting movement on the ground, would be a useful addition to the union movement’s arsenal. They could even help to make unions relevant again.
However, if this digital model is designed to be some sort of replacement for the traditional way of organising workers, it will not do much to overcome the huge problems the union movement faces.
Unions need to keep up with the latest technology available and utilise it wherever we can, but nothing can ever take the place of workers coming together in person, organising themselves, and using their collective strength to challenge the all-powerful position of the boss and demanding a bigger share of the wealth that they themselves have created.
By a hospitality worker