In December last year, The Courier revealed a number of Ballarat hospitality businesses were allegedly underpaying their employees or paying them “off the books”.
Today, one of the victims of this practice, who has filed a statement of claim in the Federal Court, tells her story.
Olivia* has dreamed of being a chef since she was a little girl.
But now she can no longer work in the industry she still loves after standing up for her basic employee rights.
Instead she suffers severe anxiety and depression that has left her hospitalised, has panic attacks and is forced to live day-to-day on Centrelink payments, her dream of owning her own house shattered.
In October, Olivia will face her high profile former employer in a mediation session after she filed a statement of claim in the Federal Court alleging underpayment of wages of at least $27,000.
She also says she was fired for complaining about both her pay and unreasonably long hours.
The Courier has chosen not to name the employer for legal reasons.
On December 22, 2014 Olivia began working at a Ballarat restaurant as a full-time qualified chef.
However, she was paid cash in hand and considered a casual employee until February 2, 2015.
During this time, her shifts began to get longer and longer, working from 12pm until 8, 9 or 10 pm with no breaks.
Eventually she was working up to 50 hour weeks with no extra pay.
"I wasn't very happy about it," she said.
When she brought it up with her supervisor she was told: "You've got to do what you've got to do. It's just how it is - there's no more money".
"I was just hoping they would realise what they were doing."
However, although she loved being a chef and enjoyed working at the restaurant, Olivia realised she had to move on and asked her supervisor to be a reference for her.
"I told her I wouldn't leave them in the lurch and probably wouldn't leave until after Christmas or even the summer."
But then her supervisor, who was also the head chef, went on leave and Olivia was told she would have to start her shifts an hour earlier and finish an hour later.
"More and more hours were piling up and I was only on the very average rate of $15 an hour after tax.
"I was bringing it up more and more but I was told 'if you don't like it go elsewhere'.
"It got to the stage where I just said enough."
On New Year's Day, Olivia started at 11am and finished at 10pm.
She decided to stand her ground and said she wouldn't work any longer than her 40 hour week.
This left her doing only eight hours work in the next three days, even though she was rostered on for full shifts.
"I was trying to call their bluff."
Her employer finally approved her overtime but then called her in a couple of days later for a meeting in which he told her he knew she was looking for other work and that she should leave at the end of the week.
He also advised her to "finish up on good terms", especially as he knew all of the hospitality business owners in town.
Unsure whether she had been fired or not, Olivia rang her employer the next day to clarify the situation and was told she had effectively resigned.
When she remonstrated, she was told she could have her job back - but "off the books".
"I said I was more than willing to stay if I was paid fairly according to the award."
During the following week, Olivia barely slept or ate while she worried about her job and her stress levels were sky high.
"But I kept going, I kept working even though I was about to lose my job for standing up for myself."
On Sundy, January 10 this year, Olivia packed up her equipment believing it was the day her boss had asked her to finish up.
"I didn't hear from them on the Monday when I didn't show up."
Instead, she rang to organise a separation certificate and was put through to her employer who described her as a "f...ing crazy bitch".
"That was the last contact I had with him."
Olivia has since tried to go back to work as a chef but hasn't been able to due to anxiety and panic attacks.
"I was trying to save for a house but now I'm barely surviving week to week."
Olivia said she filed the statement of claim to try and stop hospitality employers treating their staff badly.
"I want them to look at this case and think twice about doing it to employees of their own.
"In hospitality, they can pay you as badly as they want because there will always be 10 people lined up behind you to take their crap.
"It's a cultural thing. Even as apprentices you're told to harden up and there is the expectation you will be working long hours with no breaks."
The statement of claim alleges Olivia’s employer breached section 340 of the Fair Work Act by taking adverse action against her because she had “exercised her workplace right to complain and inquire about the alleged underpayment of her wages and other entitlements pursuant to the award”.
It also alleges he breached section 351 of the Act by terminating her employment for reasons including the reason of mental disability.
Olivia’s employer was contacted by The Courier but wouldn’t comment until the case has been legally resolved.
*Olivia is not her real name
The Trades Hall
Underpayment of hospitality workers is "illegal, immoral and unethical", according to Ballarat Trades Hall Council secretary Brett Edgington.
However, he also said it was rife across Ballarat venues.
A spokesman for the Fair Work Ombudsman also said underpayment of young workers in the hospitality industry was a “persistent issue” throughout metropolitan and regional Victoria.
“The Fair Work Ombudsman is committed to taking proactive action to improve compliance in the hospitality industry,” a spokesperson said.
He also said, across all industries in Ballarat in the 2014-15 financial year, the Fair Work Ombudsman recovered $135,000 for 48 underpaid workers.
Mr Edgington said the industry had been left wide open by many in the industry taking up workplace agreements during the Work Choice debate of 2005-06.
"They took them up to get rid of penalty rates and, at the same time, they pulled funds from the Fairwork Ombudsman," Mr Edgington said.
"Employers know these days their chances of getting caught are minimal. But how can you compete in an industry where people are breaking the law?"
He said he had been approached by many young Ballarat hospitality workers who had been underpayed, unfairly sacked or treated badly in their workplace.
He cited the example of a young worker who cut herself and had to go to hospital.
She returned with a medical certificate and was sacked on the spot.
But Mr Edgington said people kept silent because they wanted to keep their jobs.
"We need people brave enough like Olivia to stand up.
"This is a booming time in the industry and there is a high level of exploitation and abuse.
"But when they are sitting down to a meal, most people don't realise it."
Mr Edgington said he had been in contact with the Ombudsman for our region and had also approached the City of Ballarat about changing their procurement policy to using only suppliers who obeyed their legal requirements to their staff.
"There are a lot of ways we can tackle it. We have to - this is not a victimless crime.
"People like Olivia can't get car loans, house loans. These kids are not being paid properly."
Lawyer Orry Pilven is sick to death of young hospitality workers being exploited.
So he and his firm, Saines Lucas, are working on Olivia's case pro bono to send a warning message to other Ballarat venues underpaying workers.
"Usually they (the workers) don't have the funds because it's a user-pays (court) system," Mr Pilven said.
He said most people couldn't get their case past the first mediation stage, which usually involved a minimal payout from their former employer and a confidentiality clause.
"The firm's sick of getting people in who we can't help.
"We want to make an example and frighten people into doing the right thing.
"We want to protect vulnerable employees."
Mr Pilven is also involved in the Young Workers Legal Centre where people can make a free, half hour appointment to meet with a lawyer to discuss their case.
It is based at the Ballarat Trades Hall in Camp Street and is available on an appointment basis.
Olivia said she used the service after reading in The Courier last December about hospitality businesses cheating the tax system by paying employees illegally and off the books.
"I found it incredibly helpful,” Olivia said.
Some of the issues the centre deals with include proper payments, overtime and penlty rates, workplace injuries, workplace bullying, sackings, rights and entitlements.
Anyone who feels they are being underpaid or not receiving proper entitlements can contact the centre on 5332 3666 or ring the Fair Work Commission on 13 13 94.
Details about which award or agreement an employee is covered under should be included on workers’ pay slips.
Commerce Ballarat chairman David Wright said: “All businesses must abide by the laws and awards that are set for industry and it is never acceptable not to appropriately reward employees. The issue is that for some sectors such as hospitality penalty rates at certain times are extremely high and unfortunately that can encourage some businesses to do the wrong thing.”