Bitter Beans

4 April 2019

(Content Warning: workplace verbal abuse and altercations, including gender and religious discrimination)

The last few years have seen many cafés and restaurants ousted for non-compliance with correct pay. Although these businesses suffer in the form of damage to their curated image and brand, workers often bear the brunt of an underpaid and overworked existence—workers who are usually students themselves.

Caffeine is an undeniable lifeline for a large number of students, and most are generally conscious of the environmental impact their daily brew can have. There is, however, another aspect to the ethical consumption of our morning coffee—the wage of the barista serving it to you.

According to a 2012 survey by the National Union of Students, over 66 per cent of students reported being concerned about their finances, and this has not changed over the last seven years.

“Many young workers are fearful of speaking out, let alone demanding their rights because of the high cost of living and the need to support themselves,” said the Univeristy of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) welfare department. “Students are vulnerable to getting underpaid because they’re not well-versed with the law and do not know their rights. With international students, the fear of an inquiry and them being on a visa also comes into play.”

This concern among students about their financial wellbeing makes them more at risk of being exploited in the workplace.

While the cost of living has risen steeply over several decades, wages have been slow to catch up. Many students choose any work available in order to cover costs, regardless of compliance with award pay and benefits.

Alex*, a member of staff at Baretto Espresso Bar, is one such student. Alex* currently works part-time at Baretto and claims to be paid off the books in cash. Although their alleged rate of pay is 45 cents an hour more than the award requirement, they claim that they are not receiving the paid leave or superannuation they are entitled to.

“Honestly, I was pretty desperate for a job and wanted some money,” they said.

Baretto owner/manager Sab Randazzo denies that any of his staff are being paid illegally or not receiving their award entitlements. “It would’ve happened in the past but times are changing,” he admitted. “Everything’s recorded. It’s all on the books [now]”.

Mr Randazzo also insists that he has “a lot of systems in place” to ensure all his staff are treated and paid correctly.

Additionally, despite rent increasing, Newstart and Youth Allowance have barely changed over the last 20 years. For international students it can be even worse, and, without the safety net of Centrelink and a capped working limit, they can often accept jobs that pay off the books. ‘Wage Theft in Australia’, authored by senior law lecturers from the University of New South Wales, found that one third of international students were paid $12 or less, which is approximately half the casual minimum wage.

Upon investigation, Farrago found that many cafés on the Parkville campus do in fact pay the correct award rates to their staff. However, it appears that the University of Melbourne itself has no obligation to monitor the pay or welfare of any of the café workers on campus.

“Just like a shopping centre is liable for incidents in its common areas, so is the University. What happens within the confines of an establishment is the responsibility of the store-owner … and not the party that leases out the space,” UMSU Welfare explained.

“Honestly, I do not think every café [has] the same payment standard on campus,” former Carte manager Bobby Chen said. “Even though we are happy to do the right thing, it makes it a little bit hard because [with] the same price, some [other cafés] become more profitable”.

Although Carte may be paying its staff award wages, a former staff member alleges that the café wasn’t giving its staff correct breaks. According to the Hospitality Industry General Award, staff who work for nine hours or longer are entitled to at least one 10 minute paid rest break and one 30 minute unpaid meal break.

In their year and a half working at Carte, Jordan*claims to never have received their paid rest break when they worked nine or more hours. In spite of this, Jordan* still looks back on their employment with the café fondly. A number of other employees also expressed similar sentiments about working at Carte.

One issue that continuously arose during Farrago’s investigation was that both students and cafés, while happy to discuss their working environment, often would refuse to comment about pay. When Farrago reached out to a number of staff from Castro’s Kiosk, no one wished to discuss their rate of pay. However, a Castro’s manager insists that their staff are receiving award wages and that the cafe is “100 per cent transparent” about its pay rates when hiring new staff.

Mikey, manager of Parkville’s House of Cards, highlighted this issue. “House of Cards pays award rates and super. It’s the right thing to do. If anyone doesn’t feel comfortable or omits this question, then I think that’s an answer in and of itself.”

However, it appears not all workers on campus are being paid award rates. Adam* was employed at Professors Walk Café from March 2015 to December 2015. “I clearly remember my starting salary was $16.67 per hour, and I was not notified about this before I started. To be honest I was very excited, as this was my first job so I didn’t care much.”

Staff at Professors Walk are actively discouraged from discussing their pay.

Sam* told Farrago that “[the manager] threatened to fire whoever had talked about pay behind [their] back”. Adam* further explained that one worker, upon turning 21, asked for a pay rise, and was “shut down right there, in front of everyone”. The manager allegedly said that it was “very disrespectful of him to ask about his pay rates whilst he was at work”, and that this was the reason many staff were reluctant to ask for the rate they were entitled to.

Even when Adam* was given higher responsibilities as Team Leader, he did not receive a raise to match his duties, and even did some tasks, such as cleaning and closing up the café for free. Sam* also alleges that Professors Walk underpaid them during their employment in the latter half of 2018. Payslips they received from the café showed their hourly rate had discrepancies with the current award. Darcy*, a former barista, said that his manager would severely cut shifts as “a warning”, after mistakes had been made, or if staff asked for a pay increase.

He further explained how firing on the spot was not uncommon, for small things such as answering questions in the wrong way, dropping sandwiches, and in one instance for cutting an orange incorrectly. Sam* described how there was an atmosphere of fear in the workplace which created anxiety amongst staff. “Any time you spoke to [them] it was like ‘is this going to put my job on the line? I would describe the atmosphere … as socially tense. There was a real feeling … that [the owner] could come in and you would get punished.”

All former employees of Professors Walk requested anonymity when speaking with Farrago, not only due to payment discrepancies, but also due to emotionally distressing workplace issues. Sam*, who at the time had not yet come out as non-binary, left work in emotional distress after the manager introduced gendered aprons. “It actually led me to have a panic attack that day and I had to leave the café just to hyperventilate and cry on South Lawn,” they said.

In his three years at Professors Walk, Darcy* remembers a number of physical encounters he had with one of the café’s owners. “There were definitely times where [they] would push me away forcefully,” he said. However, Darcy* insists that “they were better to me than others”. Both Adam* and Darcy* also claim one of the café’s owners would frequently show up to work intoxicated. Throughout Darcy’s* first two years of employment at Professors Walk, one of the owners “was stumbling in [to the café] and you could smell the alcohol on [their] breath,” he alleged.

Adam*, who is Muslim, describes one particular incident when leftover food was being given out to staff members at the end of their shift. The owner offered him a ham and brie baguette, which he declined. “[They] kept on questioning me why I wouldn’t take it. And I explained how it was forbidden in my religion. After hearing my answer, [they] sort of scoffed, and said that my reasoning didn’t make sense to [them].”

UMSU Welfare actively encourages students to approach UMSU Legal for help. However when Adam* approached UMSU Legal to seek compensation for underpayment, he was told they had too many cases. After he went to Fair Work to get specific details of what he was owed, he re-contacted UMSU Legal but received no response. Adam corresponded with UMSU Legal in April 2016. During this time, UMSU Legal underwent a restructure, and the principal solicitor, whom Adam corresponded with, left the service.

Management from Professors Walk Café declined to comment on these allegations.

Despite these negative experiences, many cafés are doing the right thing, and foster a supportive work environment. Employees from both House of Cards and Standing Room reported feeling comfortable and valued in their workplace.

In response to Farrago’s request for comment on the issue, a representative from the Fair Work Ombudsman encouraged students to get in touch, and said, “We prioritise matters involving requests for assistance from young workers as they can be particularly vulnerable in the workplace and reluctant to complain.”

Farrago also reached out to the University to comment on this issue, however did not receive a response.

*Individual has asked to remain anonymous. A pseudonym has been used in place of their real name.

If you’ve experienced unfair treatment at work or believe your workplace rights have been violated, the UMSU Legal Service provides free advice and assistance to all enrolled students of the University of Melbourne. For enquiries about workplace rights and entitlements, call: 0468 720 668. For more information on work rights, visit or call the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94 for free advice.

Correction: clarification added to note the timeframe in which Adam spoke to UMSU Legal. 


Standing Room

Waiting time: 4 minutes
Bean blend: “SR Espresso”
Tasting notes: Quite full-bodied—definitely a darker tasting coffee which packs a punch. Rather creamy, with a long, distinctive finish. Some people might find it bitter, I quite enjoyed it—I could feel it giving me coffee breath though. Could have used a little more microfoam.
Special notes: Only comes in one size. No option for a large. Shaaaaame! Also refused to serve me a coffee at 4:01pm – an attitude which matches the pretentious café décor, not gonna lie.
Price: $3.90
Rating: 8 beans

House of Cards

Waiting time: 5 minutes
Bean blend: Clark St Coffee
Tasting notes: Creamy, creeeeamy boi. Very smooth and velvety, with a strikingly rounded gout, and a milky white chocolate finish. On the mellower side of flat whites, with a subtle sweetness to it (quite distinctive of House of Cards). In my opinion, could use a bit more oomph to it. Perfect amount of microfoam.
Special notes: Chucked on a surcharge for using a card—cheeky. Gave me a card to pick where they should spend their charity donations though, which is cute af. Also has a keep cup discount! NICE.
Rating: 8 ½ beans


Waiting time: 4 minutes
Bean blend:
Tasting notes: Giving me caramel vibes? A slight sweetness to the coffee, but doesn’t hold much creaminess or pallet taste. You get the creamy flat white taste at the start, then it sort of dashes off, and it arrives again with a long, semi-bitter finish. A half-compromise between SR and HOC in that sense—milky arrival, long finish. Could use more microfoam.
Price: $3.60
Rating: 7 beans

Professor’s Walk

Waiting time: 2 minutes
Bean blend: Professor’s Walk Fair Trade Organic
Tasting notes: Weak. A little watery, not much of a creamy body, or much of an espresso edge or long finish to give the coffee character. A little too foamy for a flat white. A little disappointing and didn’t feel a huge amount better than a servo flat-white.
Special notes: Barista’s cute. Chucked on a surcharge though.
Price: $3.80
Rating: 5 beans

One response to “Bitter Beans”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I used to work at Professor’s Walk Cafe for six months and I was underpaid, most staff did not get their annual leave payout and were too scared to ask for it and the owners were generally awful and yes, did fire people on the spot. I was told not to ask the boss questions as I was “not her equal”. When I finally worked up the courage to quit, only one person had been working there for longer than three weeks, no one else could stand to be there. Customers would often hear the boss yelling at me and come up to me and ask if I was ok. The worst place I have ever worked at by far.

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