Is it offering worthwhile training opportunity or has it found a clever way to skirt around workplace law?
Burger chain Grill’d has come under scrutiny for its government-subsidised training program, which some workers say is being strategically used to get around paying staff award wage rates.
The program has netted Grill’d more than $7 million from the federal government’s Apprenticeships Incentives Program, which is designed to “contribute a highly skilled and relevant Australian workforce that supports economic sustainability and competitiveness”.
Grill’d promotes its program as “12-month training to ensure consistency across all our restaurants in delivering the Grill’d Experience,” which culminates in workers being awarded, depending on their state, a Certificate II or III in Hospitality or a Certificate II Retail.
The company is permitted to pay workers less — as little as $14.50 an hour — while they are conducting the training.
“The training we provide at Grill’d, including our qualifications, are an essential part of developing our people and providing them with the important knowledge and skills to deliver on our promise,” the company says on its website. “It’s this training that provides our team members with long term career opportunities — here at Grill’d and in the broader community.”
However, workers with the company have told news.com.au that their training was rudimentary and dragged out over a long period of time so workers could continue to be classified as trainees.
They say the company would not roster workers on to particular jobs that they needed to complete the training — keeping them working at the counter, for instance, rather than in the kitchen.
“[The training] was really, really easy — literally like four hours’ work — (but) it took me almost two years to get it completed,” news.com.au quotes one former employee as saying. She also says the company delayed allowing her to complete the training and qualifying for the award pay rate.
“I wasn’t able to log onto the system, you would contact the regional guy, he wouldn’t get back to you. There was a lot of blatant stalling from the company.”
Grill’d has denied using its program to underpay staff, telling The New Daily that all the company’s jobs are permanent and the stores seek to commit to their team.
“Our traineeship program is accredited and administered by qualified external training providers and those completing it receive nationally recognised qualifications,” the New Daily quotes a Grill’d spokesperson as saying.
“It enhances the skills of trainees not just for Grill’d but for the trainee generally. Trainee contracts for those under 18 years of age are co-signed by a parent or guardian.”
The criticism of the burger chain comes amid reports that it is being investigated by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO). An FWO spokesperson confirmed to that it is “conducting inquiries in relation to Grill’d” but would not provide further details.
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Prior to the news.com.au report, Grill’d founder and managing director Simon Crowe sent staff an email saying that the company was “aware of a pending media story that will wrongly claim we have worked against the interests of our franchise partners, and our restaurant teams, including how we conduct our training.”
The email was posted to Twitter by University of Technology Sydney journalism student Alex Turner-Cohen.
The email also included a video message from Crowe, in which he says the company will “always try and do the right thing by our people, by our franchise partners and the many stakeholders in the Grill’d eco-system”.
“It’s actually come to our attention that there’s a media article about to be released about Grill’d challenging who we are relative to our treatment of franchise partners, the treatment of our teams and even the culture at Grill’d,” Crowe says in the video.
“The intent of this is to give you an insight to what might lie ahead. But I also wanted to point out that our values of passion, leadership, ownership and trust have been part of our fabric since the beginning and they remain. It’s how we will engage with you; we will listen, we will learn, and we will always strive to make Grill’d a better place than she is today.”
Whether the Grill’d training program has the legitimacy the company claims for it or whether it is a workaround designed to keep wage costs down, the episode highlights some of the risks involved for businesses that must balance developing their workforce’s skills with taking advantage of the subsidies and savings that are designed to promote such activity.
Grill’d told news.com.au that the government grants are offset by its own costs in providing the training.
“The net cost to Grill’d of running the traineeship program as it relates to government subsidies has averaged in excess of $450,000 each year over the last three years,” a spokesperson said.
“Grill’d appreciates the government’s efforts in providing nationally accredited qualifications and promoting the professionalisation of the hospitality industry. This provides a pathway for young people to establish careers in either hospitality or other industries.”
Presumably, however, Grill’d benefits from having a more skilled workforce operating its restaurants. It is also questionable whether hospitality accreditation is of particular use to staff, many of whom are young workers or students who have no long-term desires to remain in the industry.
This is not the first time Grill’d has been under scrutiny for its employment practises. In 2015, Kahlani Pyrah launched unfair dismissal action against the company, saying she was fired for seeking the award entitlement for her job. She had been paid under a Work Choices-era agreement that include overtime, weekend penalty rates, or meal and uniform allowances.
Grill’d has previously been criticised for dragging out its traineeships. Commenting on this in 2017, law firm Rouse Lawyers published an article noting that, “This incident comes as a timely reminder for employers to regularly consult with employees to identify issues which could intensify or grow if left unresolved”.
It’s yet to be seen to what extent the company will regret choosing to ignore what appears to be a three year old warning sign.