The Guardian 30 March, 2005

Pink Salt throws crumbs to staff

Sun April 3 — Sat April 9

Over a million television viewers across Australia received a stark and unexpected taste of things to come as TV-reality show My Restaurant Rules broadcast a pay dispute between contesting restaurant Pink Salt and its staff.

Staff opened their pay packets after the restaurant’s second week of operation and found their wages had dropped markedly.

It appears they had been moved from NSW Award rates of pay onto a Federal AWAs (individual contracts) without their knowledge, and were being paid significantly less as a result.

Stewart, Pink Salt’s sous chef, received $300 less than he expected. “No one has talked to us. No one has shown us where our pay slips are. No one’s shown us our tax, no one’s shown us our super”, he said.

In a typical “sign-it-or-leave” fashion the restaurant manager/TV contestant Evan Hansimikali told Stewart: “I’m getting the forms so you can sign the AWAs”.

The dispute attracted media attention and the story was carried in national newspapers. It also grabbed the attention of the NSW Department of Industrial Relations, which sent an inspector to the restaurant to review the hours and pay of all Pink Salt staff.

Apart from finding there was no valid AWA justifying Mr Hansimikali’s actions, they also discovered that kitchen staff had been underpaid by three hours.

Mr Hansimikali and his partner Bella Serventi made an entry on their internet weblog in an attempt to explain that it was all “a misunderstanding”. Their staff were happy, they said, and had willingly agreed to go on AWAs.

The couple assured viewers they were not in the business of “taking advantage of people” and the problem was due to a “lack of communication”. It was “a shame” that the dispute had been taken “out of context”.

In fact, the whole matter was very simple: the drop in pay the staff received in their second week was merely that they had been paid for a week-and-a-half in their first cheque. At least, that was the situation according to the entrepreneurial couple.

However, the official Channel 7 website told the story somewhat differently: “In Sydney, Bella and Evan were struggling with their staff’s wages. Pink Salt pulled in $82,000 last week, once again beating the other restaurants on weekly takings. In a bid to save some of that profit, Evan changed the kitchen staff’s employment conditions. Unfortunately he didn’t tell anyone about this…”

The public shaming bore fruit: Pink Salt workers are now all on NSW Award casual pay rates.

After the resolution of the dispute a posting was made on the My Restaurant Rules webpage:

“Evan and Bella resolved their kitchen staff’s pay dispute during the week, but everyone from the newspapers to government ministers have bought into the issue. The pressure is getting too much for the young couple who think that the situation has gone past a reality TV show now. They retreated to their confession booth to set the record straight in a tearful and heartfelt speech.”

The so-called “confession booth” is a TV gimmick whereby contestants on reality shows can bear their souls in an automated booth without a camera crew present. The “secret confession” is then broadcast to millions of television viewers Australia-wide.

Meanwhile, on the Pink Salt webpage Mr Hansimikali offered a helpful Tip for the Day: “If you are an employee and have a problem with your pay, talk to the boss not the cameras...and the problem will be resolved.”

This eye-bogglingly simplistic view of industrial relations perhaps shows how the young restaurateurs ended up with a dispute on their hands in the first place.

And under Howard’s proposed Industrial Relations reforms, the panacea of “go and have a chat with your boss” would certainly end the dispute — the boss could sack you on the spot without fear of an unfair dismissal claim and then hunt around for someone unemployed and desperate who will work for even less.

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