In Public Opinion by Clyde Mooney

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Immensely successful and popular hospitality group Merivale is being lampooned for the decision to end its out-dated WorkChoices employment contract for staff, adding insult to irony.

High-flying 40-something bar tsar Justin Hemmes has built his family operation to count over 70 licensed venues, employing around 3,000 workers.

Hemmes also effectively contributes to the employment of an unknown number of staff at publications around the world, being the subject (true or not) of constant click-bait headlines on his movements, from his multi-million-dollar real estate dealings, to rumours of buying a $40-million private jet or fleet of sea planes.  

The Group has come to employ many of its staff under a ten-year-old WorkChoices agreement arranged under the Howard government. This has remained in place under the so-called ‘zombie’ provision due to no regulator pressure to end it.

Following discussions with hospitality worker union United Voice, this week underlined by the Fair Work Commission, Merivale will end its ‘Collective Agreement’ on 4 March. As part of its submission statement, the group suggested it will undergo relevant “administrative and operational changes” to transition to the system of individual awards for its workforce.

Unsurprisingly, the news has prompted pot-shots at the industry-leading operator, incorrectly suggesting the slated changes due to having to pay staff higher rates indicate flaws in both management and the entire business model.

Implications such as “reviewing viability” and “cranky about having to pay” led news of the FWC outcome.

Merivale’s response clarified that the planned review would encompass challenges such as allowing staff movement between venues, and individual rostering requests. The group’s size and diversity are benefits for most staff, able to gain experience in a wide variety of settings with a world-class operator.

Reporting on Merivale’s purported dilemma also cited former (anonymous) employees, complaining of terrible conditions and rates of pay. The Collective Agreement was reported to be paying $24.20 at virtually all times, with little or no loadings on weekends or public holidays.  

While the debate over casual loadings has raged for decades in Australia, it is worth noting that even the base rate is far higher than that experienced in most developed countries.

By comparison, the USA pays casual staff in hospitality between a high of $A17.61 ($US12.50, in District of Columbia) to a low of $7.25 ($US5.15, in Georgia and Wyoming).

The median minimum hourly wage across the US states is just $A13.03, and the most common rate – in 14 states – is $A10.21 per hour.

Merivale has again clarified its position on the subject, debunking suggestions HR manager Kate Tones argued that paying award rates and penalties presented a problem for the company.

“To be clear, these are in-venue administrative and operational reviews and are not assessments as to the ongoing financial viability of any individual Merivale venue or the business as a whole.

“Merivale is committed to continuing to be a lead employer in our sector. Our staff are at the heart of our DNA and we keep them front of mind in everything we do.”

Tomorrow, the universally acclaimed innovator and one of Australia’s most recognised industry ambassadors will likely be praised for something equally scandalous. To be continued …