Aussie dollars
Australian dollar denominations shown in a photo illustration at a currency exchange in Sydney, Australia, June 7, 2016. Reuters/Jason Reed

A Melbourne café owner, who has been accused of underpaying staff, has threatened to sue them for “harassment.” In an email to one of the workers sent on Anzac Day, Barry café’s co-owner Steve Petroulias said he would reimburse the unpaid wages, but he also included an ominous promise.

Earlier this week, former staff at the Northcote café told the ABC that they were underpaid by at least $5 an hour. When they tried to discuss their wages with the owners, brother and sister team Steven and Anne Petroulias, their shifts were cancelled indefinitely.

Anna Langford said she and other staff approached the owners to discuss the wage discrepancy as a group. They were rejected. The Petrouliases instead agreed to meet them individually.

“When we were on shift, they started to interrogate us, asking questions like, ‘Who’s the ringleader?’” Langford said. She sent a text message on April 7 to ask once more for a group meeting. The owners rejected the request again, saying each one of them had a separate agreement.

The staff then sought outside advice. They got in touch with the Young Workers Centre, which helped them draft an email to their bosses. Mr Petroulias replied to the email hours later.

Hi Anna, Just to let you know that you and the other staff agreed each and every one of you the rate that you would be paid.

On top of that you all had free meals free unlimited coffees, and paid during your meal break. You came and went when ever you felt like and you begged us to come back after seven months away.

On top of that you asked us to employ your sister as well. If you weren’t satisfied with your pay why all that.

All of you had previous experience, had worked in other cafes and you knew what the rates were.”

Langford also received a text message from Ms Petroulias, cancelling Langford’s shift for the next day. Two other workers who co-signed the letter also lost their shifts.

Mr Petroulias claimed that their shifts were cancelled because they had too many staff on those days. As the employees were casual, they didn’t have fixed schedule.

One of the staff, Hannah Paletu’a, resigned after receiving the text. She said she had never seen anyone’s shifts cancelled during her time there because they were always short-staffed.

Mr Petroulias said he thought he was paying his staff correctly. He Googled the average rate, and so he was under the impression that the minimum hourly rate was $18. But after checking it again, it was actually $18.51.

As the ABC notes, the minimum hourly rate for full-time staff is $18.51. However, casual staff like Langford should get a minimum $23.51 per hour.

Mr Petroulias said he would rectify the mistake, but he assumed the staff were happy with what they were getting because they accepted their job. He also said they were provided with meals and coffee during their shifts and were paid for their 20 minutes of break.

The staff and United Voices union members protested outside the café on Monday. The Fair Work Ombudsman is now investigating those claims.

But the story didn’t end there.

On Friday, Langford told the ABC that Mr Petroulias has agreed to adjust their staff’s wage to the correct award rate. But he also warned her that they would be sued if they didn’t end their “harassment.”

“However if the harassment continues to hurt and devalue our business each one of you Will be sued individually and collectively,” [sic] he wrote the email on Wednesday.

Langford said she was angered by the email. “I can’t think what they would be wanting to sue us for. They use the word ‘harassment.’ But I can’t see how telling the truth is harassment, when they refused to work with us for so long,” he told the paper.

Ms Petroulias explained to the ABC that it’s because they felt harassed. The staff and union workers held a rally outside the café, which allegedly scared the customers. They had to call the police. The staff, she said, were planning another protest.

Free lunch should not balance right wage

A workplace lawyer, who is not connected to the Barry staff’s dispute, told SmartCompany that the café owners might not be able to properly defend their position. Peter Vitale said that even if all staff agreed to receive food or other things in lieu of full wage, the owners would still be in the wrong.

“The employer wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. The High Court has said for at least 100 years that you can’t contract out of an award,” he told the publication.

And if there were extra incentives, those should be marked as bonuses.