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Former Malaysian restaurant employee tackles workplace exploitation head on

ARE you being underpaid at work? Former international student Wan opens up about being shortchanged at work and how speaking up about the issue has helped. He tells reporter Kai Yi Wong why international students shouldn’t settle for less. 

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International students are being underpaid in workplaces across Australia, and many are not even aware that they are being exploited.

Meld Magazine published a story recently on a Caufield-based Gloria Jeans cafe which was fined for paying international students far below the minimum wage required by law.

A similar case had also cropped up in Sydney where one former international student was reportedly underpaid by a large Malaysian restaurant franchise.

Wan, 26, was working for Papparich Broadway in Sydney last year when he discovered he was being vastly shortchanged by the Malaysian chain.

He was being paid $13 at the time of his complaint, but should have instead been paid $21 under labour laws which include superannuation, something he says he did not receive.

In an interview over Skype, Wan shares his experience and encourages other international students to speak up on the matter of workplace exploitation.

What prompted you to approach us with your experience?

Wan (W): Underpayment of employees is a very widespread thing. It’s very common but not many people do much about it. For me, I’m not pursuing this for the money. It’s about creating awareness around my situation that such things exist.

Could you explain how you came to realise you were being underpaid by your former employer?

W: I think most international students here don’t know what the minimum wage is. For the first year I was here, I thought it was $10.00 because everyone else was saying the same thing. I never researched how much it really was, because [I was never educated about it].

I only noticed something amiss when I asked for a breakdown of my pay. The gross income that was stated was not the figure we actually received. That was when we realised too, hey, we weren’t earning above that amount so why were we paying tax? That was when we noticed something was fishy.

You mentioned ‘we’. Did this situation affect you or a certain number of colleagues too?

W: A good number of us were affected. Many were not happy with the management. Seven of us left around the same time due to this underpayment. We were not given any superannuation and we are still looking at getting back what was owed to us.

 Underpayment of employees is a very widespread thing. It’s very common but not many people do much about it.

Why do you think companies underpay student workers?

W: I understand some small businesses genuinely can’t afford to pay everyone minimum wage. But this is PappaRich, a large company with outlets in Sydney and Melbourne. They are doing really well. There are long queues every day at their outlet. The fact that they said they couldn’t afford to pay their workers minimum wage makes it frankly unbelievable. Especially since they are a franchise, they should have had cash flow projections. They were clearly cutting costs here and there, which for me is a major ethical issue.

Were they aware that you were a student at that time?

W: That was an interesting bit. When I joined, they did not bother to get my details, i.e. whether I was a student, an Australian resident or things like that. And since they were paying in cash, they didn’t really seem to care about the whole 20-hour work week (for visa-holding international students).

It was only after 2 or 3 months when they sent an email out asking employees whether they were students.

How has the Fair Work Ombudsman been helping you?

W: They have been amazing. They have been negotiating with the employer, and that really helps because you don’t have to speak directly to them to resolve your case. I think it’s a lot better to have someone speak on your behalf. Most importantly people should know the Ombudsman is ready to help them.

In the Sydney Morning Herald story I was featured in, I wanted to let students know that they can do something. For me, these businesses will not change unless someone lodges a complaint and does something. Students do not realise they have these avenues for redress.

Most international students come from countries which might not have a minimum wage, and it’s ironic that as a Malaysian I have been exploited by a Malaysian company.

I wanted to let students know that they can do something. For me, these businesses will not change unless someone lodges a complaint and does something. Students do not realise they have these avenues for redress.

Have you been seeking legal help in your case thus far?

W: I have actually been seeking legal help in my case, which has been useful. There is a community centre in Sydney which guides us on what legal recourse we have. They helped give us an idea of the legal framework surrounding such cases.

Students may reluctantly accept that such situations (being underpaid) is the norm and they should accept that, but we need to realise that we have rights here in Australia too, and there are people willing to help us.

In my research, Melbourne has similar legal centres where one can get pro-bono legal advice too, so students should definitely look into that.

So you could say you are looking to spread awareness, and also on a personal level to get what you are owed, back.

W: To be honest, I’m not doing this for the money. It started off wanting to help workers who felt they have been cheated. I approached the Council of International Students Australia and they helped direct me to services which could help solve my case.

Being underpaid is not a dead-end. The market will not change if they don’t speak up about it. In fact, the branch which I worked for is now paying the legal wage after the story broke, so that’s a good first step.

Do you have any advice for international students who may want to work in Australia?

W: After going through all this, I would strongly advise students to walk away from jobs which underpay you. Make sure you know what you’re getting in for. You may be desperate to work and accept any wage, but do not shortchange yourself. Be aware of your rights as a worker and the minimum wage you are entitled to.

If you find yourself in that situation, and you feel you are being exploited, there are always services there to help you. Don’t be afraid to reach out.

Employers and employees seeking advice or assistance should visit the Fair Work website or contact the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94. A free interpreter service is available by calling 13 14 50. Information to assist people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds has been translated into 27 languages, with fact sheets tailored to overseas workers and international students plus YouTube videos in 14 languages to assist overseas workers understand their workplace rights in Australia.You can also follow Fair Work on Facebook and Twitter, as well as Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James@NatJamesFWO.

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About

Meld Magazine was incorporated as an independent not-for-profit media outlet in September 2008 to reach out to international students in Melbourne, and provide students the opportunity to gain real work experience.

Many international students live in or around the city because of the proximity to their colleges and universities, and that was where we decided to focus our efforts first. Many of us live, work and study locally too. Our editorial team is made of both local and international students, and it has worked to our advantage in providing local content in every sense of the word.

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