FORCING some of Australia's highest-profile and most successful chefs and their restaurant empires to pay up wages they owed has showed things don't always have to "be that way" in hospitality, unionists in Wollongong heard on Thursday.
Sara Smylie from the online union Hospo Voice said a Victorian survey found about 76 per cent of workers said they had experienced "wage theft" in the past year.
She said young workers had joined protests at restaurants and online - media being a vital strategy in getting companies including Neil Perry's Rockpool group and George Calombaris's Made Establishment to pay workers what they were owed.
"They don't care about their workers; they care about their reputations," Ms Smylie said at the Uniontown conference hosted by the South Coast Labor Council.
"We are seeing those individual wins come in day by day - things like winning pay back for individual workers, things like people winning their jobs back," she said.
"But there's also those industry-wide wins which are starting to shift. That's going to be a long-term game, but on an institutional level, the Fair Work Ombudsman has been launching investigations and raids.
"The other change we're starting to see is the shift in industry behaviour ... employers seeing the power of 'hospo' workers on the streets and online, being faster to settle wage claims, being faster to engage."
Hospo Voice is a cut-price online-only union which offers basic assistance to hospitality workers.
Migrant workers make up 11 per cent of the Australian workforce, and are particularly vulnerable to underpayment, UnionsNSW's Isabel Salinas said.
Ms Salinas works on Visa Assist, where migrant union members get immigration advice for free.
She said migrants often fear speaking up because the high cost of living in Sydney means many may be working more hours than allowed by their visa.
"This is a constant," she said. "They are not going to report exploitation because they they know their visa would be cancelled."
She said softening restrictions on student visas would help people stay within the rules - taking away that leverage for exploitation.
South Coast Labor Council secretary Arthur Rorris said unions must remain inclusive - low membership rates, and hospitality business practices, demanded it.
"We haven't got the luxury of isolating people and shooing them away," he said. "We need to bring people in, and that means trying new things - particularly with young people, and particularly at a time we know wage theft is so rampant."