Niki Ellis | Good Karma


Good Karma

09 Mar 2017, Posted by Professor Niki Ellis in Inside OHS articles

I can cope with life as long as every morning I can go to a good café, have toast and coffee and read the paper. I do a trade with the Gods – give me that and I pretty much don’t mind what gets thrown at me for the rest of the day, even though the reading has been pretty grim in recent times.

I was horrified by the exposure of the exploitation of the casual workforce through the falsification of timesheets and underpayment by business.

You will remember a joint Fairfax and Four Corners investigation exposed widespread wage fraud in the 7-Eleven convenience stores in late 2015, resulting in the resignation of the chairman and CEO. According to the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), Michael Smith, on stepping up from the deputy chair role to take over as chairman, said that 7-Eleven was the “tip of the iceberg”, adding: “We have a problem in this country.”

The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) investigated 7-Eleven and reported in April 2016 that although the company purported to ensure compliance with relevant legislation it did not take action to detect and address non-compliance. The FWO took a number of enforcement actions, and made recommendations in order to:

• Promote a sustainable culture of compliance across the 7-Eleven network; and

• Enhance the FWO’s effectiveness to bring to account entities and persons responsible for exploiting vulnerable workers on temporary working visas.

7-Eleven’s voluntary response to the exposure was to express shame, to hire a former detective to investigate the fraud, to appoint Alan Fels, a former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chief, to set up a panel to investigate any entitlements related to underpayment for workers who believe they have been ripped off, and to establish a whistleblower hotline.

However, they subsequently sacked the panel, with Alan Fels stating at the time that the amount of payment owing could reach the $100 million mark.

At the time I thought this could be one bad apple, but in February 2017 pizza chain Dominos came under investigation for underpayments, indicating that Michael Smith’s comments about 7-Eleven being the tip of the iceberg may have been right.

As well, at the time SMH was reporting the 7-Eleven scandal, they commented that Fairfax Media had been “inundated with emails from foreign and local workers across Australia” including from “staff at nail bars, takeaway food outlets, restaurants, petrol station chains and other high profile franchise networks”.

So we are left to hang our heads in shame at Australia’s employment culture, and impotent regulatory institutions.

The Senate Inquiry into the impact of temporary work visas called their exploitation a “national disgrace”.

Although the day before I sat down to write this article the Fair Work Commission announced a reduction in penalty rates – so not that impotent.


Innovation and automation


Following the Turnbull government’s election campaign on jobs, growth and innovation, much has been written on the business pages about the future of work in Australia.

Internationally there are two schools of thought in relation to automation: the glass half full crowd think that with artificial intelligence will come jobs we have not even thought of to replace the ones we lose; the glass half empty crowd think that is pie in the sky.


Innovation and application


Bill Ferris AC, Innovation and Science chair, spoke on this when Catherine Armitage interviewed him for SMH. “Yes, there are some jobs at risk, but also a whole pile of jobs to be created,” Ferris told Armitage. “One thing is certain, if we don’t embrace and be in front of the bus of new technologies there will be less jobs than there would be otherwise.”

Alarmingly there has been a flurry of articles in the business press recently about Australia’s poor performance in innovation.

From 2005-2013, I worked in academia on industry collaborations for research. In that time I discovered that Australia is known to have a great capacity for discovery research, but a poor track record in translating the research to practical or commercial benefits. The low level of collaboration between universities and industry in Australia compared to the rest of the world is seen to contribute to this.
The consequences now appear to be coming home to roost, with expressions of concern that Australian industry lacks the know-how to take up the opportunities afforded by the technological revolution.
The Boss magazine in the Australian Financial Review quoted the chief of the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre, Jens Goennemann, who said: “I think there is a knowledge gap in our wider manufacturing base on how to become more competitive, namely through advancing manufacturing techniques rather than cost competitiveness.”


Transitioning economy and impact on health and well-being


Meanwhile as we wait for the new manufacturing to emerge, or not, we continue with our transition from a traditional economy to a services economy, dominated by small business, and associated with a growth in part-time work and underemployment.

A bleak picture for those of us concerned with safety, health and wellbeing.

At this point my glass is decidedly half-empty, but I look up from the business pages of my newspaper as Andrew Hardjasudarma, owner of my favourite café, Room 10 in Potts Point, tops up my glass, and as always, I marvel at what I see.

This small business was listed as one of Sydney’s top 10 in this year’s Good Food Guide. Many who frequent it comment on the extraordinary hospitality and team work on display. In a tiny space the staff clearly follow agreed work practices and constantly communicate to maintain the high quality of food and service.

The café has existed for six years. Andrew bought out his previous business partner in 2015. He told me he had ideas about changes he wanted to make to the way it was run, but decided to make changes incrementally. Central to his vision was hospitality, he wanted customers to feel they were coming to his home.

Another fundamental principle for him is respect. He said that comes from his family background, he is Chinese-Indonesian, now Australian. His father taught his children to show respect to all people ‘no matter what their position’. He said he extends that attitude to his staff as well as his customers, saying they are his second family.

He believes in karma, and that “one day you might need something, and someone will help you”.

In discussion I tease out his approaches to people management:

Lead by example – “I am on the roster, I show by example”;

• Clear roles and delegation – Staff know what their responsibilities are. “Staff feel bad if they don’t do this […] If they slacken off there will be peer pressure”;

Dealing with problems including poor performance – Engage with the relevant staff member or members about the problem, ask them what they think, work with them to identify the problem, and find a solution

• Selection of staff – “The first thing is attitude.” Other skills can be achieved by training. “For new or inexperienced staff you need to tell them what is good and what is not and why”;

Remuneration – I asked if he pays below award wages as it seems many in the hospitality industry do. He is horrified: “This is my reputation”. Good performance is awarded with pay rises; tips are shared equally, but if you turn up late you don’t get any;

Continuous improvement – Andrew is constantly on the look-out to improve by learning from others; his staff and others in the industry.


Andrew considers that if you run a successful café, staff will be more likely to want to come and work in it, to gain skills and experience, and that if they feel appreciated they will stay longer. If all customers are welcomed and treated as VIPs his client-base will be as diverse and large as possible. He said “Potts Point is a mature market”, with lots of competition. Why alienate anyone?

With the growth in inequity, and the seeming failure of the big end of town and governments to provide any comfort to vulnerable workers, it gives me hope to see a small business owner recognising the link between respectful people management and business success.


Scaling up peer-to-peer learning


Perhaps Kate Carnell, Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, can find ways to help scale up peer-to-peer learning and good practice generated from within small business.

We need to do more to stop the divide; it is just good karma.



First published in Thomson Reuters Inside OHS, 06/03/2017

Inside OHS Editor: Stephanie D’Souza; (02) 8587 7684; Stephanie.D’