Ben Schneiders, Hard Labour: wage theft in the age of inequality, Scribe Publications, 2021.
Australian workers owe a debt of thanks to Ben Schneiders and his colleagues (Royce Millar in particular) at The Age for their consistent work to expose systemic exploitation and wage theft since 2015. Schneiders’ book distils his journalism, exposing some of the worst, yet extremely typical, examples of working conditions in Australia. As an exposé of the situation for millions of Australian workers this work is worth reading for everyone concerned with the fight for workers’ rights in Australia today.
Schneiders’ book starts by showing how the coronavirus pandemic in 2020–21 brought to light the vital necessity of “essential” workers, while showing how many of those very same workers were put more at risk of spreading the virus due to their precarious working conditions. Overwhelmingly, the areas hit hardest by the virus and lockdown measures in Sydney and Melbourne were the poorest and where most migrants lived. Workers in the west and north of Melbourne and western Sydney couldn’t perform their essential work in cleaning, food services, retail or warehouses from home. These workers generally had less access to paid leave, state welfare and medical support and were employed on insecure, shoddy or illegal contracts.
The pandemic clearly exposed the lines of class, exploitation and oppression in Australia. The pandemic response also showed, as Schneiders outlines, that “the level of poverty in Australia was a political choice”, as we saw practically overnight the lifting of Centrelink payments, housing the homeless and even the maintenance of wages with the Jobkeeper payment (p.29). The question is then – why is this “choice” maintained? The easing of health measures has coincided with inflation which has seen “the biggest wage cut in twenty years” (now the biggest wage cut since records began).
One of the most valuable aspects of Hard Labour is its insight into the sheer injustice of the prevailing state of affairs in workplaces across this country, and the resulting vast fortunes that are accumulated in the hands of very few. The best examples in the book are drawn from the hospitality industry, such as the Rockpool Dining Group owned by Quadrant Private Equity. As Australia’s biggest “high-end restaurant conglomerate”, among many other concerns, Quadrant currently manages over $2 billion in three investment funds. Schneiders describes how through perfectly legal accounting mechanisms, Rockpool Dining Group managed to make no profit over years, avoiding tax, while still channelling $70 million in payments to Quadrant in the three years prior to the pandemic (p.57). While the owners of Quadrant raked it in selling $310 steaks, the workers at Rockpool’s various restaurants were earning as little as $12 an hour – in many cases skilled chefs employed on a 457 visa (p.31). Workers described working typically 55 hours a week, and up to 85, all while being paid for 38 hours. The workload was such that a chef reported sleeping on the pastry bench of his restaurant because he wouldn’t have time to make it home before returning to work. The total underpayment for each worker was calculated to amount to up to $100,000. After the reporting in The Age, some millions of dollars were recouped by workers, but no doubt this was a gross underestimate of the real scale of the wage theft involved (p.52). Despite the scandal, the owners of Quadrant have maintained their multimillion-dollar mansions.
This wage theft was carried out by implicit or explicit threats made to largely migrant workers that they needed to shut up about their pay and conditions or lose their visa. This extends across the industry. Schneiders describes a smaller hospitality group in Melbourne that literally operated two sets of books to evade legal pay rates. Then there is the example of 7-11’s wage theft against international students. In the fast-food sector, employing young workers under 20 years of age is the absolute rule, enabling the bosses to get away with wages up to half those paid to adults. Regardless of the exact mechanism used, the common element across all cases was a disempowered workforce.
Much of this disempowerment has involved the establishment of an underclass of workers on temporary visas, either on various temporary work visas or as international students. Out of this large number of people – numbering 2.2 million at the end of last year, nearly back to its pre-pandemic levels – 100,000 are estimated to be here in breach of their visa conditions, placing them in an extremely tenuous situation, ripe for exploitation (p.163). Schneiders relates the story of these workers across industries and workplaces. For example, Mahani Tif arrived on a tourist visa and worked as a strawberry picker for piece rates. Once employer deductions for transport and board kicked in, she was on $3 an hour.
Farm workers that the National Union of Workers (now the United Workers’ Union, UWU) had begun to organise in Victoria would speak “with great intensity about the fundamental disrespect they experienced – the bullying, the sexism, the racism – and about the extraordinary hours they worked, and of being yelled at to pick more broccoli, lettuce, or fruit” (p. 154). Workers at Rockpool described the constant surveillance and demands not to take breaks as being treated “like a slave.” Thus the workers across multiple industries who spoke out asserted their humanity against the degradation that their bosses would force them into, as Schneiders documents.
Whereas the accounts of workers striving for dignity leap from the page, the bosses are conspicuous by their absence. The only boss actually interviewed is Chris Hadley, managing director of Quadrant Private Equity. As if he speaks for the entirety of the capitalist class, Hadley simply throws up his hands regarding the disgraceful underpayment and “modern slavery” in restaurants owned by his company. He explains that “we are not operators of the business,” merely “shareholders”, who, hand on heart, “are very focused on…a fair, equitable and safe working environment”. The underpayment and abuse at Rockpool were simple “mistakes” due to the complexity of various regulations – presumably, such complexities as what the minimum wage is and whether someone can work more than 38 hours a week without overtime pay (p.52).
While workers strive to assert control over their daily working lives and even their capacity to put bread on the table, the operations of the capitalist system which Schneiders discusses is more akin to a black hole – crushing everything that comes within its orbit, while remaining at the same time inscrutable and unknowable.
A remarkable case study outlined is the arcane internal operations of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, an absurdly expensive restaurant that operated out of Crown Casino in Melbourne’s Southbank until February 2020. As well as selling $500 meals, the restaurant underpaid its staff, by as much as $60,000 in one case.
Despite being just one restaurant, it is unclear who even owns it, as its proprietors, Tipsy Cake Pty Ltd, are based in an infamous Panama-Papers Caribbean tax-haven, Nevis, while the “directors” of Tipsy Cake, remarkably, all “live” on the Isle of Man, a tax haven located in the Irish Sea. On top of this, Crown Casino paid $7.9 million to yet another offshore, Irish-based company, Bacon and Egg Ice Cream, for the rights to use the name “Dinner by Heston” for the restaurant. Owners unknown made millions while avoiding tax, off the back of the back-breaking sweating of the restaurant’s workers (pp.68–71).
Just as with the broader system of ruthless pursuit of profit regardless of any broader human cost, so too does the emergence of a large underclass of guest workers with either tenuous or no work rights appear in Schneiders’ account as a qualitative development upon unplanned, sporadic and unforeseen steps. Without any politicians openly calling for it – in fact in the teeth of racist beat-ups against refugees and some migrants, and in the context of the Islamophobic “war on terror” for much of the twenty-first century – Australia has nonetheless emerged with a large strata of residents, and workers, without citizenship rights. This has developed in an ad hoc way, due to the desires of business to quickly fill “skill shortages”, with the added benefit of reducing the bargaining power of workers, and also to the explosion in the higher education industry with its now hundreds of thousands of international students (pp.164–65). This guest worker underclass is a significant fact in the modern Australian working class that must be reckoned with.
Despite the purposeful opacity of the rulers of Australian (and global) capitalism, it is nonetheless readily apparent where the vast wealth generated by workers is ending up. By 2020, “Australia had a growing class of super-rich oligarchs, unprecedented in our history” (p.42). The wealth of the richest ten people in Australia rose from $60.7 billion in 2016 to a staggering $177 billion in 2021 (p.42). The richest 200 people possessed well over half a trillion dollars in 2022. In fact, as of 2022, possessing $1 billion in net wealth is no longer enough to even be in the richest 100 people in this country. Australian society is a “whirring, self-perpetuating inequality machine” (p.42).
Hard Labour is not just a story of worker disempowerment and capitalist enrichment. It also covers important recent developments in working-class organising, in particular, the Fair Work cases against Coles (which I was involved with) and other major companies, the emergence of the Retail and Fast Food Workers’ Union (RAFFWU), and the efforts of the UWU in organising farm workers.
In each of these cases, while the experience of the workers and their bravery shines through, one notable weakness of these accounts is the lack of explanation from the workers themselves of the significance of their own actions. Generally speaking, it is union officials who provide an overview of the various forms of workers’ resistance. Yet is it the case that the union officials dominate the organisations discussed? If so, this should have been discussed as a limitation of the organising work undertaken. Or did Schneiders lean on union officials to explain the broader significance of the issues at stake, without seeking out the opinion, for instance, of worker leaders of the newly established RAFFWU?
Nonetheless, Hard Labour provides a useful account of the significance of the finding by Fair Work that Coles had breached the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT), which eventually led to the reintroduction of award penalty rates at most major Australian retailers and fast food outlets, such as the Woolworths empire, Domino’s and McDonald’s. As well as improving the pay and conditions of hundreds of thousands of workers, these cases also showed up the rank treachery of the official union for retail and fast food workers, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA).
Another chapter explains how a union could be complicit in what Schneiders and union official Josh Cullinan estimated to be around a $1 billion annual transfer in income from workers to bosses (p.116). The chapter explores the particularly idiosyncratic ideology of the SDA leadership, as the political descendants of the anti-communist Catholic activists led by Bob Santamaria of the National Civic Council, and the large factional influence wielded by the SDA in Labor as a result of their sweetheart deals with the bosses.
That influence is based on the size of the SDA’s membership, giving the highly-paid bureaucrats who run the organisation a real incentive to sign agreements with huge retailers and fast food behemoths – Australia’s largest non-government employers – that sacrificed workers’ pay and conditions in exchange for the SDA’s ability to recruit those workers. The dependency of the SDA on the employers is shown up in the darkly humorous example of how McDonald’s unceremoniously dropped their cooperative relationship with the association in 2019 after worker Xzavier Kelly, backed by RAFFWU, succeeded in scrapping the agreement on the basis that it failed the BOOT. The SDA agreement, which had obliterated a wide variety of penalty rates, had come at an annual cost of around $1,300 per worker, or around $100 million across all stores (pp.144–45).
In the case of the largely migrant, often undocumented farm workers that UWU has recently organised, the lesson related is crystal clear, as explained by organiser George Robertson:
It wasn’t coming up with innovative schemes to magically make outsourcing of labour-hire workers go away. It was, like, organise the workers really well through house visits and off-site organising, build relationships with community leaders at the workplace, and bring them together and take on the employer. That’s what that model was. It was very simple, and that, I think, built confidence in the union that it’s not impossible to organise migrant workers…(p.180)
This “old fashioned grunt-work” not only built up a membership of 5,000 in the farmworkers’ division of UWU, but resulted in real wins when it came to wages and conditions at some of the biggest rural labour-hire companies in Australia. A significant landmark was reached in November 2021 when Fair Work, in response to a union case, ruled that piece rates paid on farms must amount to the minimum award hourly rate of around $25 for casual workers. This decision – if enforced – will undercut the ability of bosses to get away with the most staggering underpayments.
As Schneiders notes at the outset, this is not “a work of political or economic theory. Rather, it seeks to provide some of the finer-grained detail of how inequality has increased, and how power relations have evolved between those with and those without wealth and power” (p.9). With this standpoint in mind the book is worth reading and an important account of modern labour conditions. As a revolutionary socialist and a long-time retail worker activist, I often found Schneiders’ (journalistic?) tendency to present his conclusions in an open-ended way frustrating. I would have preferred more polemical arguments based on his experiences of some of the most heinous cases of worker abuse and wage theft in Australia today.
Schneiders is right to point out that the examples of the pushback that has occurred among retail, fast food and farm workers won successes even in a situation of conservative government, indicating that working-class organisation is paramount to turning inequality around. While the author’s own conclusions seem to point towards the potential for a return to a more egalitarian society such as existed prior to the neoliberal period of the 1980s, the weight of the evidence presented goes a long way towards illustrating that Australia today is characterised by a vicious class war by the bosses, which can only be answered by workers responding in kind. This is not a case of reinventing the wheel, but of rebuilding class struggle unionism that recognises this fact, and as a related necessity, building class struggle politics which can help to cohere rank-and-file worker activists who see in the grassroots struggle of workers today an indissoluble link to the final overthrow of the entirety of capitalist oppression. The mindless, ravenous thirst of the capitalists to accumulate won’t be fundamentally deterred this side of the revolution.
With that said, the more people who come away from reading Schneiders’ book with a renewed understanding and hatred of the oppression of workers in Australia today, the better.
Hart, Duncan 2016, “Challenging the Groupers: the NSW Shop Assistants’ Union in the 1970s”, The Queensland Journal of Labour History, 22, March, pp.19–29. http://brisbanelabourhistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/The-Queensland-Journal-of-Labour-History-No-22-March-2016.pdf
Sprague, Julie-anne and Michael Bailey, “Total Rich List Wealth Soars past half a trillion dollars”, The Australian Financial Review Magazine, 26 May. https://www.afr.com/rich-list/australia-s-top-10-richest-people-revealed-20220524-p5ao7i