Tips left by diners at restaurants across Sydney and Melbourne 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.
Over the past two weeks, in reaction to inquiries by Fairfax Media, dozens 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,'' said the union's NSW liquor and hospitality spokeswoman, Tara Moriarty. ''If I tip at a restaurant it's for the staff, not for the owner.''
One worker at a well-known north shore restaurant said employees rarely got tips.
''People in that general area give great tips and especially when it is a huge night,'' she said.
When Fairfax Media rang the restaurant, the spokesman for the restaurant said the tips were ''divided evenly'' among staff.
A former waitress at an inner-city Korean restaurant said the owner kept all tips - never sharing them among the staff.
Chef Jared Ingersoll, who will permanently close the doors on his Danks Street Depot cafe this week, said tipping systems needed to be clear. ''We have a tipping system that is completely transparent to all the employees,'' he said.
''If you want to get the big tips then you have to work as a team.''
At Harry's Singapore Chilli Crab Restaurant in the CBD, tips are given on a ''basis of merit'', owner Harry Lau said.
''If the person is a bit sloppy he gets singled out. He might get $5,'' he said. Mr Lau said he never took any tips for himself.
''I don't get it, my wife doesn't get it,'' he said.
Former restaurateur Alex Herbert said tipping was a ''touchy subject'' in the hospitality industry. At her restaurant in Surry Hills, Bird Cow Fish, which closed its doors in 2011, waitstaff received their tips weekly. The ''back of house'' kitchen staff received their tips every three months or so, she said.
''If a $50 tip was left on a credit card, then $50 cash would put transferred into the tip pool,'' Ms Herbert said.