Tips left by diners at restaurants across Melbourne and Sydney are being taken by owners, often without the knowledge of the waiters the tip was left for, unions and restaurant staff say.
An investigation into the restaurant and cafe industry by Fairfax Media has found brazen underpayment of hospitality workers across the two cities, with little regard for minimum wage rates, workplace conditions such as breaks, or superannuation.
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Over the past two weeks, in reaction to inquiries and reports by The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, scores of hospitality workers have also said they regularly failed to get a share of tips left at restaurants where they worked.
The union covering hospitality workers, United Voice, said credit card payments in particular were a "huge problem" for employees being unknowingly ripped off.
"We have found a lot of big-name and well-to-do restaurants are taking a cut, which we think is outrageous. If I tip at a restaurant it's for the staff not for the owner," said the union's New South Wales liquor and hospitality secretary Tara Moriarty.
"We [have] started to get a lot of complaints from people. The old way was to put cash into jars at the register. The idea was that would go to the staff."
Erin Steele, who worked until last month as a waitress at a Federation Square cafe, said she had been appalled by what happened to tips at the restaurant.
"The tips are shared throughout the staff, but they take tips from the jar to cover table walkouts, even though there is often not enough staff to cover the tables," Ms Steele said.
In Sydney, the situation appears similar. One worker at a well-known eastern suburbs restaurant said employees rarely got tips. "People in that general area give great tips and especially when it is a huge night," she said.
United Voice's Victorian secretary Jess Walsh said restaurant owners and managers often kept the tips that customers intended for wait staff.
"It happens even more often when people pay by credit card or eftpos, which so many people do these days," she said. "Customers should not be afraid to ask where their tips are going."
Mike Ebstein is a credit card and eftpos payment expert from WME consulting, who worked at ANZ bank's cards division for more than a decade.
He said once diners decided to tip the staff or the restaurant, they had no control where that money ended up.
"They have made the decision that they are making the payment to the business or to the waiter," he said. "The customer isn't being disadvantaged but it's not going to the person they intended it to."
Mr Ebstein said hospitality workers should always ask what the tips policy of the restaurant is, before they commence work. Sydney chef Jared Ingersoll will permanently close the doors on his Danks Street Depot cafe this week. The cafe, he said, had always been run "above board", following all workplace laws such as pay rates and penalties.
He said tipping systems needed to be clear. "I believe that tips should be graded," he said. "We have a tipping system that is completely transparent to all the employees. ... If you want to get the big tips then you have to work as a team."
But Mr Ingersoll said tipping should not be compulsory in Australia.