An SBS investigative report has revealed the exploitation of newly arrived international students and migrants across the hospitality industry. Many employees are being forced to work for below the minimum wage and due to many cultural challenges and differences are finding it difficult to seek help or find an alternate solution.

It is a sad story and one that is proving more common than the Australian Government or employee protection agencies, such as the Fair Work Ombudsman, are aware of. In this article, we discuss the findings of the undercover report and provide ways for you to deal with the situation if you, or someone you know, requires assistance.

How was this story uncovered?

The story was first uncovered after a string of negative Facebook posts within a Vietnamese Student Facebook Group, which discussed the frustrations they had faced at the hands of exploitive employers. Almost all the posters had chosen to accept the treatment, rather than seek assistance. Many students had worked more than the permitted 40 hours per fortnight, which in turn made them vulnerable to employers who threatened to report them to the Department of Immigration for breaching their student visa conditions.

Amid the many negative posts, were cases of extreme injustice, with one Vietnamese student claiming her employer had refused to pay her for a shift because an eyelash had fallen onto a slice of bread during service. Others had their pay withheld each week for one week, to ensure they would not quit; if they did they would forgo a week’s worth of pay.

Some of the stories uncovered are horrifying and not only have affected the individual’s financial situation but their mental health as well.

Getting paid below minimum wage

SBS went undercover to expose first-hand the level of mistreatment occurring in the Vietnamese communities of the Southeast and Western Melbourne. After speaking with 20 different restaurants, they learned that no one offered more than $10 per hour and many were paid a ‘daily rate’ of between $100 and $130 for a continuous working day of 12 hours. This all falls well below the current minimum wage in Australia of $17.70 per hour.

What can you do?

The Fair Work Ombudsman is the workplace regulator that enforce the workplace laws. A spokesperson for the Fair Work Ombudsman noted that they are aware of some restaurants responsible for the exploitation of their employees and that they take this situation very seriously. Earlier this year a Malaysian restaurant was fined $200,000 for its exploitative management of employees of a similar background. Take our quiz on work rights to learn more about your legal rights and use this pay calculator to make sure you are being paid correctly.

Discussing wages is taboo

Many Vietnamese students arrive in Australia and assume that it will be easier to find, participate and be cared for in a workplace with fellow countrymen who speak the same language. SBS found however, that many employers would not discuss wages and threatened not to hire students if they pushed to know what the pay rate would be. Students often did not know what their pay was until their first payment. This strong cultural code of silence within many communities allow cases of exploitation to persist; especially when language and cultural barriers make it difficult to report such issues in the first place. Without people speaking up, there is little way for the Fair Work Ombudsman to persecute and rectify these unfair and illegal situations.

What can you do?

Fair Work has also developed an app to help record hours and this will assist with claims of being underpaid. If you believe you are being exploited or mistreated, the best thing you can do is speak up. Organise a professional meeting with your employer and discuss the issue. This may be difficult and if they are non-responsive, may require further action.

I don’t want to lose my student visa

Some students have told stories of being carefully instructed on how to deal with Australian Taxation Office (ATO) officers should any unsuspectingly come into the restaurant; often they are told to pretend to be family members. Many employers have been reported to keep two accounting books; one truthful and one that they submit to the ATO.

What can you do?

Talk to your friends, talk to your co-workers and reach out to the Fair Work Ombudsman. You can call them on 13 13 94 or click here to find out how they can help you resolve workplace issues. If you are assisting the ombudsman with an investigation, they can contact the Department of Immigration to ensure your visa is not at risk.