A Blue Mountains hotel group has strongly denied claims of worker exploitation made in a Sunday newspaper exposé – but faces fresh allegations it is attempting to muzzle staff over the issue.
Escarpment Group, which operates the luxury Hydro Majestic, Lilianfels and Echoes hotels in the NSW tourist region, is under investigation by the Fair Work ombudsman and the Department of Home Affairs for allegedly failing to pay overtime and for overcharging overseas workers for board and lodging.The luxury property group’s operations manager, Adam Holmes, has strongly denied any claims of misconduct, saying exploitation allegations are “offensive”.
Arindam Biswas, who was a desk clerk at the Hydro Majestic until last month and is the focus of the Sun-Herald piece, said current staff at the hotel had been threatened with legal action and fines if they spoke to the media following the publication of the investigation last weekend.
“I am concerned about the staff because they are trying to threaten to counter-sue them for revealing anything else to the media,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“The management has said the staff have signed a contract that says they cannot speak to the media.”
According to the media group, more than 23 former and current staff of the Escarpment Group came forward on Sunday and Monday to share their stories, providing further evidence of false time sheets and pay records. The number of complainants now stands at around 30.
Mr Holmes this week defended the group, arguing the trainees had applied for a training internship through a government approved internship agency.
According to The Blue Mountains Gazette, he said: “Hydro does not charge any fees for any training. Rather we actually pay the trainee a full-time salary of at least $49,950 p.a. plus super to undertake work-based training with us for average of 12 months.
“We deny any allegations of underpayment or exploitation.”
He compared the Hydro Majestic’s $480 weekly twin room board and lodging charge with that of the international hotel school in Leura, which he said charged $495 a week.
“The full boarding package enables us to ensure the trainees are catered for and includes twin share accommodation, three meals, laundry, utilities, internet and wifi. This is at $67 per day or $480 per week.”
The Sun-Herald article pointed out that the shared room cost is higher than the market rental rate for an entire house locally, while former employees allege training is minimal to non-existent in some cases.
Complainants argue meals are sometimes not provided at all and, until questions were raised about the standard of meals late last year, usually consisted of leftovers.
Interns were told the board and lodging charge was compulsory and warned they would have to terminate their contracts and visas if they moved out.
While the Escarpment Group argues there is no issue with worker exploitation, other Blue Mountains representatives have acknowledged it has long been an issue for the region.
The secretary of Blue Mountains Unions and Community, Debra Smith, told the Gazette: “The exploitation of overseas and local workers in the Upper Mountains hospitality industry has been a long-term concern of our members.
“We believe the exposé about the Escarpment Group – in particular at the Hydro Majestic – is just the tip of a very nasty iceberg.”
Jim Angel, a former Blue Mountains councillor of 25 years, raised concerns about the exploitation of visa workers in the local hospitality industry in a submission to a Senate inquiry in 2016.
He described the rent charge by the hotel group as “quite excessive”, telling the Sun-Herald: “It gives the whole industry a bad name and the tourism industry is the lifeblood of the Blue Mountains.”