Esther Han, Anna Patty and Inga Ting
January 21, 2016
Mamak attracts large crowds, but has not escaped the attention of the Fair Work Ombudsman. Photo: Supplied
Restaurant and cafe jobs around Sydney are being advertised with pay rates as low as $10 an hour despite growing outrage over the underpayment of workers, especially of foreign students.
Following allegations that Mamak restaurant underpaid international students and visa-holding staff more than $87,000, Fairfax Media has found, in a quick search on Gumtree, job advertisements with wages under the award rate if paid to an adult.
A cafe offered $10-15 an hour for full-time kitchen and waiter positions; a sushi shop offered $13 an hour for a 40 hours+ a week waiter job; and a CBD cafe on Market Street offered $15 an hour for a 30 hour+ a week kitchen hand position.
Nina Khairina, national president of the Council of International Students Australia.
Nina Khairina, national president of the Council of International Students Australia. Photo: Supplied
While such rates are legal for junior staff, Nina Khairina from the Council of International Students Australia said foreign workers were applying for and obtaining similar positions with similar rates, not knowing they should be getting paid more.
“They would go for it, and many students would be unaware. Some would even think $10 an hour is a decent amount because the cost of living and studying in Australia is high,” she said.
“When they become concerned, they are really discouraged to report it in fear of many things, like losing their job for example. I believe underpayment is systemic.”
One Irish-Pakistani international student said he responded to a Gumtree job ad posted by an Indian restaurant in Pyrmont last year. When he went for a trial run, he was told he would be paid $13.20 an hour.
“I spoke with the workers. They were all about 20 to 28 years old and international students. They all knew they should be getting paid more, but it was an easier option to just accept things,” he said.
Mamak, the Malaysian restaurant on Goulburn Street, which is famous for its long queues and fast service, allegedly paid rates as low as $11 an hour to the casual staff over more than three years.
One employee is believed to have been underpaid by $26,793 while another was allegedly owed $21,538.
Under the restaurant industry award, an adult at an “introductory level” should be getting paid at least $17.29 an hour.
But John Hart of Restaurant and Catering Australia said it was wrong to state one single minimum rate for a foodservice job as the pay structure was very complex.
He said the “absolute majority” of members complied with the law. If they were found to have breached the law, in most cases, it was by accident.
“Overwhelmingly they didn’t know they’re doing the wrong thing. It’s the complexity of the system and the lack of clarity that leads to non-compliance,” he said.
“There are ways kitchen hands are paid $13. It depends on their age, their classification, their training. It’s not as straightforward.”
But Giri Sivaraman, a principal in employment law at Maurice Blackburn, said in his experience, underpayment in the food sector was usually intentional.
One of his clients received nothing for his labour. He is aware of workers who received $5-$10 an hour.
“It is nothing to do with complexity with pay structure and everything to do with the owner of the restaurant seeing how far they can exploit the worker,” he said.
United Voice, the union representing hospitality workers, urged the multibillion-dollar education industry to take responsibility for the “endemic” exploitation of foreign workers.
It has also called for an amnesty to protect overseas students and international workers who speak out about their exploitation.
“This is a $15 billion export industry in international students and universities are culpable in taking money from students who come here and struggle with cost-of-living issues,” United Voice national secretary Jo-anne Schofield said.
“The unis offer the world to them but don’t care and don’t look after their wellbeing after they get here.”
Unions NSW acting secretary Mark Morey said the Mamak revelations should prompt the federal government to overhaul Australia’s work visa programs.
“Unions NSW is concerned about federal government inaction in relation to the widespread exploitation of temporary workers in Australia and fears this exploitation will only get worse with the implementation of free trade agreements negotiated in secret,” he said.
Tim Kennedy, national secretary of the National Union of Workers, said the current system saw all the risk being pushed onto the worker and no risk being born by the employer.
“Employers are out there taking advantage of the lack of rights … to affect a form of slave-like conditions and exploitation,” he said.
Fairfax Media has contacted Mamak for comment.