Unfair Wages Remains a Reality for Korean Visa Holders
Sue* opens the door with weary-eyes, but the wrinkles around her eyes are overshadowed by her bright and youthful smile.
Sue is 59 years old and at home, she likes to wear matching tracksuits and keeps her hair short and neat. The immigrant from Korea rents out a small bedroom in the Asian dominated suburb of Eastwood. She chose the sublet room for its close proximity to the Korean restaurant where she has worked for over nine months.
“Most days, I work nine AM to nine PM. It’s mostly standing all day, but I do get to sit down and eat lunch between three or four PM when there are no customers. Korean customers eat sporadically,” she explains in her native Korean language.
When Sue first arrived in Australia, she worked for her sister’s restaurant where conditions were easier, but after the store shut down, she began her search for alternative employment.
An ad for ‘kitchen hand’ was listed in an online forum Hojunara, and like many young and old immigrants from Korea, it’s the first point of reference. Sue had worked in a variety of hospitality roles in Korea so she was hardly nervous when the small business owner invited her to start working.
“The hours are more or less the same as Korea, and the work conditions are also similar. But, here I’m getting paid better,” says Sue.
By ‘better’, she is referring to her pay rate of $16 per hour, less than the minimum wage.
I know lots of Australians get paid something like $20 to $25 an hour but I can’t find a role like that if I can’t speak good English and everywhere here is the same.
With only a verbal agreement of wages and working hours, Sue’s employer remains exempt from complying with minimum wages, superannuation contributions or overtime rates. Employee benefits such as annual leave are out of the question, and for most Korean owned and operated restaurants, penalty rates for public holiday hours rarely apply.
Immigrant workers reluctant to seek help for fear of visa cancellations
Australia plays host to a largely silent class of immigrant workers that remain vulnerable to exploitation and are unprotected from the law. The ‘cash-in-hand’ arrangement is not a foreign concept for those on a Working Holiday Visa, 457 Visa or recent arrivals to Australia, who get paid less than the minimum wage, but many are reluctant to seek help for a perceived fear of a visa cancellation.
A range of educational and multi-language resources are available online, as well as an Anonymous Reporting tool for all employers and employees on the Government’s Fair Work website. A spokesperson for the Fair Work Ombudsman says that despite the available resources, a lack of awareness of rights and available resources contributes to persistent underpayment of Korean visa-holders.
“We know that fears of visa cancellation may prevent many visa holders, including Korean nationals, from seeking workplace help from us.”
“A person’s temporary visa will not be cancelled if they had an entitlement to work as part of their visa, believe they have been exploited at work, have reported their circumstances to us and are actively assisting us in an investigation..”, explained a spokesperson for the Fair Work Ombudsman.
Businesses continue to underpay immigrant workers
Reports of underpaid migrant workers began to surface in 2016, prompting a government report into ‘The Exploitation of Temporary Work Visa Holders’. Despite the enforcement of large fines on businesses and agents caught exploiting immigrant workers, underpaid workers are still in demand. According to a recent audit by Unions NSW, approximately four out of five jobs that target Chinese, Korean, and Spanish speakers, were advertised with illegal wages.
In 2016, The Fair Work Ombudsman launched a Korean Australian Engagement Strategy, to raise awareness amongst business leaders and stakeholders in the Korean community to educate Korean employers and employees about Australian workplace laws.
“We are also actively seeking to dispel the myth that it’s OK to pay migrant and visa holders a ‘going rate’ that undercuts the lawful minimum wage rates that apply in Australia,” said a spokesperson for the Fair Work Ombudsman.
According to Sue, tax evasion is a common occurrence among small Korean businesses and interlinked with unfair wages.
“Store owners only go to Korean tax agents who know the Australian laws very well. They don’t have to declare how much staff they have or how much earn and pay. It’s expected everywhere you go,” she says.
Sue dreams to apply for a new job in Aged Care. She hopes her current situation is only temporary, but many remain in her situation.
“I am learning English in my room every day so I can be hired to work with an Australian company. That’s what I’m saving up and waiting for these days…” she said.
*Names have been changed for this story.