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This interview was published by the Advertiser SA Weekend on July 31 2021
The inside story of how thousands of Australians who have been the victim of wage theft are finally fighting back. Plus, the big corporate names dragged into the courtroom.
Xiao An was looking for a job. She had recently graduated from her marketing course at the University of South Australia and the Chinese national was keen to stay in Adelaide. Like many international students, Xiao An looked on the Adelaide BBS website. It’s a kind of Chinese-language marketplace where you can find houses to rent, cars to buy and where jobs are advertised.
“When I graduated I wanted to find a job and get some experience,” the now 21-year-old says. “I feel this is suitable for me and I applied.”
The job she found was in advertising and sales for a wine business based in the city. Xiao An, not her real name, was there for two months and was never paid. The excuses started early. It was the end of the financial year, she was told. The company was being restructured.
“They even showed me the screenshot of the bank account of the company, saying they did not have enough money to pay so I have to wait,” she says.
“I feel like I am constantly being frauded. The boss kept making unrealistic promises to me that I’ll be promoted, getting a high yearly salary.”
All the while, Xiao An was working five days a week, sometimes weekends as well.
“I had to work full-time, and even overtime during weekends in that toxic, competitive environment but nothing was paid. Sometimes after working, I cried all the way to home. It was so stressful,” she says.
The issue of workers being underpaid, or not paid at all, was thrust firmly into the spotlight in February when a video of an assault at the Fun Tea store in Chinatown went viral. The video showed a young worker at Fun Tea being slapped and kicked after complaining she was only being paid $10 an hour, less than half the wage the worker was entitled to. The national minimum wage is $20.33 an hour.
A man called Lei Guo has pleaded guilty to the assault and will be sentenced next month. Guo was said to be a friend of then Fun Tea director Jason Duan, who later appeared on a video with a Sydney-based YouTube user and admitted he had only paid the victim $10 an hour.
The assault of the young student caused immediate backlash and brought renewed focus on to a dark part of the national economy – the exploitation of young and vulnerable workers by those who employ them. Often they are international students on visas with no understanding of their rights, with poor English skills and little support.
The federal government’s Fair Work Ombudsman started an investigation into Chinatown’s restaurants and a preliminary report found “very high” non-compliance levels.
That investigation is ongoing but in April, the Ombudsman Sandra Parker said: “Our intelligence indicates that Adelaide’s Chinatown precinct employs many workers on visas who may also have limited English skills, which can lead to vulnerability and exploitation.” It is expected the Ombudsman will file charges year end.
Part of the solution may be for universities to provide more information to its students when they arrive in the country to tell them what their rights are and what support is available to them.
Meng Liu came to Australia in 2018 to study social work at Flinders. She, too, was ripped off by an employer.
“The first month I was here, I realised that everyone around me was doing an underpaid job, like all the international students I knew,” Liu says. “At that stage I didn’t know that was illegal.
“It’s the whole culture of being exploited, because if you’re a new person come to the country … everyone around you is doing the same, being exploited, you kind of normalise the situation.”
Liu found a job at a bubble tea shop. The pay was $10 an hour.
“It’s mentally tough as well, because when my parents sent me to Australia, they didn’t expect me to do a labour job only get paid $10, even lower than the pay in China,” she says. “The first time when I heard the minimum wage was $20 I was totally shocked.”
Liu says Adelaide’s reputation is suffering internationally because of the Fun Tea assault. She says the video has been viewed 55 million times in China.
“For many people, the Fun Tea incident is the first time they knew the city of Adelaide. And now, in China they call the city, like the bubble tea incident city. If I’m a parent, I want to decide where my children is going, I won’t choose Adelaide.”
Liu is now working at the Working Women’s Centre, which helps others who have been in a similar position, including some ex-employees of Fun Tea.
The centre’s chief executive, Abbey Kendall, says we have only seen the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to wage theft. Kendall says the centre has recovered $700,000 in lost wages over the past year, with only four lawyers on staff.
“We could take on another probably 10 lawyers and still not scratch the surface,” she says. Kendall says the pandemic has made things worse, even though there are fewer international students in SA. The state’s youth unemployment rate has fallen but it’s still 9.4 per cent, significantly higher than the overall rate of 5.3 per cent.
“The desperation of the workforce increases and therefore the ability for employers to be able to take advantage of that and exploit that desperation is huge,” she says.
The rise of companies such as Uber, Uber Eats, Deliveroo and Airtasker are built on the back of gig workers. But it’s also been controversial.
Five food delivery workers died on Australia’s roads in a two-month burst. Such workers are placed under extreme pressure to deliver quickly, and the rates of pay so low, that they aim for as many jobs as possible. Yet they generally earn between $10 and $15 an hour.
The McKell Institute’s Ed Cavanough says the gig economy is a new term for an old concept.
“It’s just a replica of the 19th century,” he says. “You only had work on the day that you rocked up, there is no security, so that kind of metastasises throughout the entire economy.
“They aren’t regulated, they are completely unregulated and it’s just a recipe for underpayment. That’s why I think it’s getting worse and worse and worse.”
Xiao An, after enlisting some legal help, managed to retrieve some money from her former employer. But she thinks more must be done to stop others being ripped off as she was.
Maybe, she says, there could be some sort of register set up that potential employees could check.
“Sometimes bad bosses simply close the current business after being sued and reopen another one later,” she says.
“I want the underpayment issues be recorded in the boss’s personal credit records boss and affect them forever.”