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As you’ve probably digested by now, there’s something a little fishy in the beef down at Grill’d. After more than a week of copping it over its decision to sack Kahlani Pyrah, a 20-year-old worker who demanded to be paid above the minimum wage, the national burger chain has finally buckled and reinstated Pyrah to her position.

A quick recap: Kahlani learned after liaising with her union that under a Howard-era WorkChoices enterprise bargaining agreement, Grill’d were getting away with paying her a flat hourly rate — without the overtime, weekend penalty and training rates, or meal and uniform allowances outlined in the legal restaurant award.

After presenting a petition signed by her co-workers demanding the award minimum, bosses at Grill’d Camberwell – the Walker brothers, who own five restaurants in Melbourne’s south east – initially agreed to get on board, provided the existing WorkChoices contracts were kept. When they floundered, Kahlani filed a notice with the Fair Work Commission to terminate the old contract; her assistant manager lodged a “bullying” claim against her, and Kahlani was fired ten days later.

Grill’d has since responded to the underpayment claims, and while Kahlani initially remained out of work, the Federal Court ordered Grill’d Camberwell to temporarily reinstate her yesterday, with a final decision to be made in late August.

Fuck You, Pay Me: The Broader Picture

One would have thought that a $230 million burger chain with almost 100 restaurants nationwide would be able to throw the bare crumbs to its workers, especially given its well known philanthropic conscience. From the get-go, Grill’d claimed that its work agreements are legally valid. “These claims are vigorously denied by management and will be strongly defended,” the company said.

And sure, that’s true — Grill’d’s contracts are legal. But they’re not necessarily fair.

Under today’s Fair Work Act, Grill’d workers are entitled to $18.47 an hour and up to $27.71 an hour on weekends. Since turning 20, Kahlani had been earning just $17.52 – weekdays, weekends, sometimes until as late as 2am.

WorkChoices was binned after John Howard got the boot in 2007, and that policy was a big reason that he did. Hospitality workers were widely considered far worse off under the legislation, with many losing up to 30 percent of their wages.

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Thanks to a loophole, contracts from the era remain legal – providing they still meet the minimum standards of the Fair Work Act (until of course they’re terminated in favour of newer ones, which is what Kahlani was trying to do).

Because Grill’d hire the bulk of their young workers as ‘trainees’, they also get away with paying younger workers even less. When she started, Kahlani was earning a meagre $15.20 per hour – over three dollars below the award minimum. Reports of 16-year-old workers receiving as little as $9 per hour for doing the same work as 21-year-olds who get paid double that – regardless of experience – are far from uncommon.

“It’s not fair and it doesn’t make sense”, says Leo Fieldgrass at the Australian Youth Affairs Commission (AYAC). Nor is it fair that Grill’d scales its ‘junior’ wages according to how many years out of school a worker is. The Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association’s 100% pay at 18+ campaign envisions a workforce where this sort of imbalance is no longer a reality, “especially as 18-20 year olds are already seen as adults in the eyes of the law,” adds Fieldgrass.

Despite claiming their ‘traineeships’ are tied to a Certificate III and IV in hospitality, Grill’d often don’t come through with any formal on-the-job training – Kahlani wasn’t even registered as a trainee, despite receiving the reduced wage, and other workers have claimed the same.

As reported by Junkee on Thursday, in a sign of the impact of the public backlash, Grill’d founder and CEO Simon Crowe agreed to “modernise” his workforce by finally paying staff the award minimum. Crowe maintains the traineeships are legit, rather than a tool for paying workers less. “We believe in young people, and are proud to give them a pathway that extends right through to owning a stake in their own business”, Crowe told 3AW radio.

Thanks For The Raise. What About The Sacking?

Grill’d sacked Kahlani on the grounds she’d bullied two “older, taller and more senior” managers (in her words) just days after her push for fairer conditions. One of the possibilities the Fair Work Commission will consider is whether Kahlani’s firing constitutes something called ‘adverse action’.

As the Fair Work Ombudsman states, Australian workers are protected from a number of things, and adverse action is a big one – a classic example being when an employee is “demoted (or sacked) for using their right to find out what they’re legally owed”.

Jess Walsh, state secretary from Kahlani’s union United Voice, suggests Kahlani was sacked for “speaking out” about exploitative conditions at Grill’d, and that Crowe’s response this week makes that “abundantly clear”.

As United Voice claims, this issue isn’t just about fair pay – it’s about a “toxic culture” nationwide that systemically disadvantages younger workers. That is to say, one that devalues on the basis of age and treats young people as disposable.

Grill’d: The Tip Of The Iceberg

Earlier this year, the Fair Work Ombudsman revealed thousands of young workers in the hospitality industry had been short-changed to the tune of  $1.2 million. It’s a “persistent issue,” says Ombudsman spokesperson Ryan Pedeler, and “one of the best defences for young workers against being underpaid or treated unfairly at work is an awareness of their workplace rights”.

It’s something young people aren’t often aware of, adds Leo Fieldgrass: “our members regularly report concerns about employers exploiting young workers”. No news to Jackson Stiles at The New Daily either, who argues that unscrupulous bosses are persistently taking advantage of young workers.

Recently, we heard about the horrific conditions at EB Games, where employees were expected to work 80+ hours a week, much of it ‘voluntary overtime’. Management had been allegedly terrorising and abusing young staff members for years, while underpayment had become a bedrock of the company ethos. If workers complained, they were harassed, taken off the roster, and in some cases, fired and banned from stores nationwide.

Because they’re often less experienced in dealing with superiors, young workers are prime targets for workplace power imbalances, and regularly made to feel guilty if they bring up their rights or concerns. The uncertain job climate only fuels this: when national youth unemployment and underemployment rates sit at sky-high levels, they’re ever more reluctant to speak out for fear of losing their jobs.

“This is definitely a broader issue”, says Emma Kerin of the National Union of Workers. According to the NUW, successive governments have slowly eroded industrial rights over the past two decades, leaving young workers particularly in the dark about their entitlements, and largely without a voice.

Locals Aren’t The Only Ones

ABC’s 7.30 recently exposed how low-skilled Asian and European migrants in Australia on working holiday visas are routinely underpaid, abused, harassed and assaulted by dodgy local employers. Kerin adds that the farm and poultry industries are particularly notorious, many of which supply Australia’s most prominent brands. Four Corners showed how Australia’s leading chains, including Woolworths and Coles – as well as fast food chains KFC, Subway and Red Rooster – all benefit from an endless stream of cheap, ruthlessly exploited labour.

Take the example of Taiwanese worker Amy Chang: she was fired recently for blowing the whistle on shocking work conditions at Teys Cargill meatworks in Wagga Wagga, where she and her colleagues were forced to work ‘voluntary’ overtime under the normal hourly rate, and given next to no training despite the acute OH&S dangers.

The temporary nature of these visas – where foreigners  are often only allowed to work with the same employer for six months at a time – means labour can easily become very disposable. Given that backpackers and fly-by-night workers rely on temporary employment for their livelihood and residency, they’re unlikely to kick up too much of a fuss when their basic rights are trod on.

Some do: a Dutch couple who worked for as little as $3 or $4 an hour, eleven-hour shifts at a time, collecting discarded golf balls on a Queensland golf course are currently suing their former employer for over $12,000 in back pay. But the bulk of workers remain at risk in a system that thrives on a hidden, underpaid workforce, driven by unethical, advantageous employers. As Joanna Howe writes at The Drum, “the presence of such a large and vulnerable migrant workforce, that is unregulated outside domestic labour law, risks creating an underclass of workers who are invisible to the law”.

In the end, the equation isn’t complex: businesses should pay their workers fairly, and ensure their basic individual rights go with it. Kahlani Pyrah’s decision to speak out against her treatment has juiced an important conversation about the vulnerability that young Australians deal with everyday in the workplace. She’s won her job back, and good on her.

But so long as systems exists where operators can get away with cutting corners on labour, workers across the board – young, old, foreign or not – will remain disadvantaged and exploited. This issue isn’t about awards and rates. It’s about basic human respect.