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Exclusive: exploitation of Vietnamese students rampant among Melbourne businesses

A special investigation by SBS Vietnamese reveals deliberate and ongoing exploitation of Vietnamese students and migrants in the hospitality industry with some staff paid as little as $6 an hour.

Many of the employers behind these practices were fellow migrants themselves, revealing an endemic culture of intra-community exploitation within the Vietnamese Australian community.

SPEAK VIETNAMESE? Read the full story in Vietnamese HERE. 

Watch the TV report on SBS Ondemand 

Key findings of the investigation by SBS Vietnamese
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SBS Vietnamese's investigation begins with a hidden camera that reveals the sad story behind the bowls of Pho, rice rolls and Vietnamese baguettes that are enjoyed across Australia daily. Many newly-arrived Vietnamese international students and migrants are being exploited as workers – often by their fellow countrymen.

- SBS undercover footage reveals that many such staff were being asked to work for a daily wage range from $100 to $130, sometimes continuously working up to 12 hours at a time.
- Because asking about salary when applying for job is a cultural taboo in many Asian cultures, many students reported commencing work without knowing their wage until their boss gives them their first salary.
- Exploitation has affected the mental and physical wellbeing of many international students. They often worked in poor conditions with the lowest wages reported at $6 per hour.
- Students reveal tricks that restaurant owners are using to avoid paying tax and dealing with authorities.
- Business owners speak out in their defence, alleging that they must find ways to hire cheap labour in the competitive market if they want to survive.
- Fair Work says that immigrant employers exploiting workers from similar background is considered “extremely serious”. Many Vietnamese restaurants owners hire and exploit employees of the same cultural background as there is a strong cultural code of silence – especially when language and cultural barriers make it harder for workers to report complaints.
- There is no definitive data or statistics about the number of exploited migrant workers in Australia and there is a call-out for the government to probe further.
- Many migrant business operators do not understand and comply with Australian workplace laws because of cultural challenges and the differences between Australian and Vietnamese laws.
A flood of concerns and complaints from the Vietnamese international student community
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Eight months ago, SBS Vietnamese was alerted to a growing wave of fear and anger among Vietnamese international students. It began with a story, shared to Facebook by one victim who claimed to have been exploited by a Vietnamese restaurant.

The post was shared to the Vietnamese Student Facebook group, which has nearly 32,000 members, where it attracted several hundred comments. Many people shared their similar frustrations and negative experiences. Notably, almost all commenters said that they had accepted this exploitation instead of seeking a solution to protect them.

“I asked for my pay and the owner said: ‘During the trial, no one will get paid in here.’”

International students often work extra hours beyond the 40 hours per fortnight permitted by their student visas in order to make ends meet. This can therefore leave them vulnerable to being taken advantage of as the employer can then use the threat of reporting them to the Department of Immigration to deter them from asserting their rights or reporting abuse.

Many students tell SBS Vietnamese, they have no idea what the minimum wage is in Australia or who Fair Work is. Some students suggested creating a list of dodgy Vietnamese restaurants to report to the Fair Work Ombudsman.

This issue keeps happening even till today, with no sign of improvement and getting worse. In the last two weeks, 5-7 international students shared how a Vietnamese restaurant in South Yarra-Victoria avoided paying wages to a staff member for some ridiculous reasons on this Facebook group.

For example, the owner refused to pay a female staff member because her eyelash dropped on to the bread; she even threatened her staff if they report her business to Fair Work Ombudsman. They decided to report this restaurant to Fair Work and Consumer Affairs Victoria.

 

Below: Vietnamese students shared some of the following stories to Facebook:  

Minh* named a restaurant in South Yarra, explaining she had a negative experience there two years ago: “I asked for my pay and the owner said: ‘During the trial, no one will get paid in here.’”

“I said: ‘Why don't you tell me at the beginning?’ and she answered: ‘Everywhere the same.’”


Ms Nguyen* offered a different perspective: “International students are permitted to work 20 hours per week. So are you sure that you never work over 20 hours?”

“Are you sure that you can get a good job, no exploitation, well-paid, while your lack of skills, experiences and English is not good?”

“Do you think that if they pay you well, they are going to allow you to work more shifts? Although they pay $21 per hour, they could just allow you to work 2 hours. Is it worth it to work?

"If you think that business pays you too low, you have a right to find other jobs."

"I accepted to work $8 per hour, $15 per hour while my friends work for a five star restaurant, their wages are $25. They said I’m stupid - I ignored them. Then they were made redundant, had shifts cut…"

 

“I saw the restaurant owners post a job recruiting for waiter and kitchen hand. I went and asked about wage. The owner said it was $10/hour." 

 

Kim* alleged: "You cannot say that the business is not doing well, then the owners can pay very low wage at $8-$9/hour."

"Vietnamese restaurants are usually very good business. They have many diners so that the waiters need to work hard all the time. I see that they even need to run to bring food to the table, do not have enough time to clean up after the diners left. The bell in the kitchen is always ringing to call the waiters and a lot of customers have to wait outside for tables. All of that can only afford $8-$9/hour for waiter's wage?"

“I saw the restaurant owners post a job recruiting for waiter and kitchen hand. I went and asked about wage. The owner said it was $10/hour."

"It is absolutely unfair. They are living luxury live style with Hermes handbags, Rolex watches, Lexus, Mercedes cars. The claim that they are not doing well in business to justify underpaying their staff is ridiculous."


Ms Vi* offered a tip for her fellow workers: "I want to share with you a Fair Work's message sent to me. I hope that if anyone is questioning about your working entitlement, please click to share [information] that Fair Work provides to learn your rights and fill out the form and report illegal businesses."

*Names have been changed.

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Undercover footage reveals worker exploitation
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Last month, SBS Vietnamese sent an undercover “shadow job seeker” along with a hidden camera to knock on doors of multiple restaurants in the Vietnamese community in Southeast and West Melbourne, talk in person with Vietnamese restaurant owners and staff and to find out the "market wage" that Vietnamese international students are being offered.

Of the 20 restaurants owners and staff we spoke to, nobody offered wages over $10 per hour, well below the current Australian minimum wage of $17.70 per hour. SBS undercover footage shows many staff were being asked to work for a daily wage range from $100 to $130, sometimes continuously working up to 12 hours at a time.

Watch: Undercover footage shot by SBS Vietnamese

A restaurant in Sunshine required keeping one week’s wage as a bond. 

“I will keep your salary for one week, in case you quit job here,” a man is heard telling the job seeker.

He then flatly refuses to discuss staff wages and when the job seeker continues to ask her wage, he angrily refuses to hire her: “No, don’t ask wages. If you ask again, I don’t hire you.” 

“I will keep your salary for one week, in case you quit job here” 

SBS’s "job seeker" pleaded with another owner from the Vietnamese community for 20 mins to know her wage, but he was not happy to reveal the salary: “No, why you keep asking salary, though you still haven’t worked.”

A current staff member at a bakery shop in northwest Melbourne secretly discreetly tipped off our undercover job seeker that asking salary here is prohibited. "Asking about salary here is taboo subject," he says.

"$10 per hour, I pay cash, no bank transfer, easy..." was an answer given by another employer at a Pho restaurant in West Melbourne.

"Asking about salary here is taboo subject."

A representative from a restaurant in St Albans was surprised when he heard other places offer $17 per hour. “Huh? $17/h for waitress, that much, I can’t pay you that high,” he says.

When SBS later returned with cameras visible, the same restaurant owner from the undercover footage denied even employing external staff.

"Just my Mum, my niece, my nephews - I don’t hire anybody from outside. I don’t pay for that."

The staff member who shared the wage rate of $10 per hour, paying cash in hand, now says to us that she hasn’t heard about that. "I’m not sure. It depends, my boss, she didn’t tell me that one."

Meanwhile, another restaurateur freely admitted to paying a training wage well-shy of the award, when he was asked how much per hour he responded "$9 cash."

Immigrant employers exploiting fellow migrants "extremely serious"
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Many Vietnamese students arriving in Australia expect Vietnamese business owners to look out for them. Logic usually holds that it should be easier to work with their fellow countrymen, who speak the same language.

Yet, SBS’s investigation has shown these students frequently find themselves engaged in work where they are exploited and underpaid with some even claiming instances of psychological abuse.

The lowest paid rates for international students working in Australian restaurants have previously been reported as ranging from $8 to $12 an hour, depending on the work experience. But SBS’s investigation has identified rates lower still – at $6 per hour.

Helen’s story: $6 per hour

Former international student, Helen Nguyen told SBS Vietnamese she was paid an hourly wage of just under $6 for her first three weeks working in a restaurant in Sydney and says she had to endure constant abuse from her employer.

"They said I was too young and that they felt sorrow, sympathy for me. So they hired me and paid me $35 per day during the training period. I was so happy; I did not know the minimum wages in Australia were about $16, $17. They promised that if I worked hard for them during a long time, they would pay me more. Then I realised the business owner was playing a trick on me.”

In 2013, the minimum wage  after taxes would have been $11 per hour. Helen says she first understood that she was being underpaid after talking to friends, but preferred to trust her employer who she thought was looking out for her as a fellow Vietnamese immigrant.

"They promised that if I worked hard for them during a long time, they would pay me more. Then I realised the business owner was playing a trick on me.”

Ignoring her employers’ scolding and swearing, she says she persevered, hoping to offset some of her living expenses, with money that her that her parents were sending from Vietnam. But she says things got steadily worse.

“They insulted my parents; they screamed my parents didn’t know how to teach me,” Helen tells SBS.

“I couldn’t stand anymore. I quit job the job and they said I was ungrateful. I was so scared of them, because they were just like threating me. The next morning, they insulted me and asked me to return the uniform.

“I went to restaurant, laid the clothes on the table and ran away because I was freaking out. I never want to see them again.”

Helena says she still keeps the $35 dollars of the first pay packet in a piggy bank to remind her of the dark, nasty first days in Australia.

“My mental health has been affected. I cannot forget this terrible experience. I still keep the $35 in a piggy bank. I do not want to spend it; it reminds me of how much I suffered: $35 for six hours.”


 

SBS's investigation has found that many international students have the same sad story and disturbing memories of their first job in Australia.

Aggie’s story: Monitored for toilet breaks

Aggie Phan*, a Vietnamese student, studying at a well-known Melbourne university, is still shaken by recalling the experience of her first job in Australia. She describes the working conditions at a Cambodian restaurant in south-east Melbourne.

“She treated me like an animal,” Aggie says of her employer. “I [didn’t] think it happens to me and lots of international students. I [didn’t] think that I could become a victim of exploitation.”

"I know the minimum wage must be about $17 but I need job, I have to accept. They pay cash, so there is no evidence to check. I know it is illegal but I need job."

Describing her experience there, Aggie says, "I don’t have a right, even I go to toilet, they monitored me even I don’t have a right to eat in lunchtime."

"When I cried and told my parent back home that I might made a wrong decision when I came here, everything happened not I imagine in Australia, especially Melbourne - one of the most liveable cities. It did not happen."

"I know the minimum wage must be about $17 but I need job, I have to accept. They pay cash, so there is no evidence to check. I know it is illegal but I need job."

What is the Fair Work Commission doing? 

A spokesperson for the Fair Work Commission says they are aware of the fact that small businesses are abusing and exploiting their fellow-countrymen.

Fair Work says that employers exploiting workers from a similar background is “extremely serious.”

"It is essential that all businesses operating in Australia understand and apply Australian laws."

"The Agency is focused on ensuring more is done to ensure culturally and linguistically diverse business operators understand and comply with Australian workplace laws.

“We understand that there are cultural challenges and vastly different laws in other parts of the world, but want to increase awareness that it is essential that all businesses operating in Australia understand and apply Australian laws."

In February 2017, a Malaysian couple based in Brisbane were sentenced to pay more than $200,000 by the Federal Circuit Court for exploiting their employees, who happened to be of the same cultural background.

Malaysian restaurant owners fined over $200,000 for exploiting workers with 'similar culture'
Malaysian owners of three Japanese restaurants in Brisbane have been hit with more than $200,000 in fines for exploiting visa holders with a similar cultural background to their own

"Exploitation of fellow countrymen was 'particularly concerning'"

Judge Salvatore Vasta said that the phenomenon of 'exploitation of fellow countrymen was “particularly concerning”

"It would seem that if someone from a particular culture comes to Australia and is employed by somebody else from the same background, there would be an automatic level of trust and comfort in that fact,”* Vasta said in his ruling.

“In many ways, by not complying with the law of this country, there has been an exploitation of the five workers that is extremely serious.”

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How are restaurants evading authorities?
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“They use you as if you were a family member or a relative helping to look after the restaurant; you have no rights.” 

Student Sunny Ng* says restaurant owners where he worked, carefully instructed him how to deal with ATO officers if they suddenly visited the restaurant.

"In my experience, the restaurant manager never asks you to fill in a tax file number declaration or any document," says Ng. "They don’t do it, to avoid paying tax or deal with authorities."

"They use you as if you were a family member or a relative helping to look after the restaurant; you have no rights."
 
“When I worked there, my boss taught me that if anyone came in and asked who am I, I must say I’m a family member, helping a brother to take care of the restaurant, and that there is no staff here.”

Loc Lam, a Vietnamese student told SBS about of other unlawful practices that occurred in the restaurant he previously worked at.

"When I worked for a restaurant, I saw they had two financial notebooks," says Lam.

“In an official book, they listed a few employees: for example, if there were 10 staff for one morning shift, they only wrote down four people. But in another notebook, they recorded the right roster of 10 people.”

“At the end of financial year, they would submit the fake notebook. Some managers have good memory; they do not need to write it down. It is just like a ghost book to claim to ATO."

SBS’s investigation suggests that many restaurants employ staff with similar cultural backgrounds or nationality. When SBS visited, most of the staff at Vietnamese restaurants in Footscray, Richmond, St Albans, Sunshine, and Springvale were Vietnamese-speaking

Fair Work’s effort does not meet student’s expectations
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Exploitation of international students risks damaging the image of Australia's second-largest export industry, education, which is now worth up to $17 billion.

According to the latest statistics of Australian Education International, about 462,411 students are studying in Australia, of which 22,404 students are Vietnamese, making them the fourth largest group of students studying abroad in Australia, just after China, India and Korea. They are struggling to get jobs that pay the legal minimum wage.

In the 2015-16 financial year the Fair Work Ombudsman completed 1894 dispute form lodgements on behalf of visa-holders in Australia, with 95 per cent of the allegations in these disputes involving underpayments.

Of the 1894 completed disputes, the top 5 industries were:

- Accommodation and Food Services 30%
- Administrative and Support Services 20% 
- Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing 8%
- Retail Trade and Manufacturing 7%
- Construction 6%

Last October, a newly established Migrant Workers’ Taskforce was set up by the federal government. They have implemented a program of action to deal with the exploitation of migrant workers in Australia’s workplaces.

Minister for Employment Senator Michaelia Cash said at the launch that the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce was set up to bolster the government’s efforts to protect at-risk workers.

The Department of Employment told the taskforce about the government’s intention to amend the Fair Work Act 2009 to protect vulnerable workers.

However, many international students are disappointed with the Australian government in protecting them. Aggie Phan shares her views with SBS.

“Please government, authority, please protect us, please pay more attention on us,” says Phan.

“I think they should send staff there to investigate, to find out who pay under minimum wage, who do tax evasion. For those who underpay their staff, they have to get heavy fine.”

Fair Work’s spokesperson claims their main role is raising awareness in the community, "We work to encourage those who are being exploited to come forward by raising awareness of minimum entitlements and taking compliance action where appropriate".

A new mobile app released by the Fair Work Ombudsman is aimed at tackling the issue. The app uses the phone's geo-location to track when the workers are at work and allows them to create logs.

Exploitation is the result of a "culture of complicity"
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President of Footscray Asian Business Association (FABA) Wing La, admits that the competition between small businesses is very hard, and says that businesses can’t afford to pay the minimum wage.

“This has happened because of the two parties involved,” La tells SBS. “If the students didn’t accept to be underpaid, then this wouldn’t be happening. To some extent, this is the students’ fault.”

A representative of 30 small businesses in Footscray, a city in West Melbourne, Wing La says that it is not fair to blame businesses for underpaying the workers because exploitation is not only happening within the Vietnamese community.

“If the students didn’t accept to be underpaid, then this wouldn’t be happening. To some extent, this is the students’ fault.”

“Restaurant owners find it is easier to communicate with Vietnamese employees, who are most of the time not proficient in English. This is the verbal agreement to have a smooth working relationship - the contract between two parties, a secret understanding.”

Mr Meca Ho, a spokesperson of the Victoria Street Business Association in Richmond, agrees it is easier to communicate.

“Some of them are willing to be underpaid because of the language barrier,” says Ho. “They can’t find a job at other places such as McDonald’s, Hungry Jacks or other restaurants, because of their nationality, and the feeling that their language is not good enough to work in cohesion with Western society.”

“They can’t find a job at other places such as McDonald’s, Hungry Jacks or other restaurants, because of their nationality, and the feeling that their language is not good enough"

Mr Ho tells SBS, “They chose Vietnamese restaurants because they are happy to communicate and work with their own people, Vietnamese, their community.”

“It is the choice of students, not employers. You cannot always blame the employers”.

Mr Meca Ho also argued that Vietnamese food is much cheaper than other cuisines.

“They always worry about overhead cost. The food that we are selling at the moment, 10 bucks, consider between (Vietnamese food) and Italian food, $25 for a dish,” he says.

“Now there are thousands of Vietnamese restaurants. It’s so hard to compete.”

Associate Professor Joo Cheong Tham from Melbourne Law School, the University of Melbourne claims the reason behind the exploitation is that businesses do not want to risk losing customers to a competitor.

“I think what you have is an industry where it is a norm to underpay and not comply with the labour law,” says Tham. “They do so for a fear that [they would be placed at] competitive disadvantage. Labour cost in some industries like hospitality is a major cost.”

International students’ vulnerability can be further compounded once they’re employed through illegal working arrangements, at times in breach of their visas. It’s what the Fair Work Ombudsman has characterised as a “culture of complicity.”

“The culture of complicity, this is the hardest thing, in terms of moving forward”

“The culture of complicity, this is the hardest thing, in terms of moving forward,” explains Professor Tham. “Not just employers not comes forward, but also the worker not comes forward to speak.”

“Some [students] are in breach of their visa by working excess hours. So they think if they complain to Fair Work Ombudsman, the Ombudsman going to pass the information to Immigration Department. Then therefore they can face deportation.”

“It is quite clear that it is the employer's obligation to ascertain what are the legal entitlements of the workers are and to make sure the employee complies with the entitlements. 

"It's not for the worker to insist upon their entitlements; it’s not for the workers to advocate for their entitlements."


 

As a Footscray resident since 2006 and the State Member of Parliament, Marsha Thomson says she understands the difficulties faced by small businesses but is calling on them to stop the exploitation in the community.

“It is important that employers are aware of proper way,” says Thomson. “I understand that they are doing it tough.”

She adds, “I love all Vietnamese restaurants in Footscray. They are sensational, fantastic and they are very cheap. But I would hope those who walk into the restaurants would happily pay a bit more to make sure the people who are serving them and cooking for them are being properly paid.

“And we would want to be able to provide whatever we can by way of the system to help [restaurateurs] meet their requirements under the law.”

"Exploitation in Australia is one step away from modern slavery"
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“The Freedom Partnership” to end modern slavery is a national movement founded by the Salvation Army. The organisation seeks to ensure Australia does not contribute to the global problem of slavery and that people are not enslaved in Australia.

The Salvation Army explains that modern slavery is characterised by: power over another, exploitation and loss of freedom. According to the Salvation Army’s figures, there are about 4,300 modern slaves in Australia that fall into that category.

Jenny Stanger, national manager of this project, told SBS that exploiting international students is “one step away” from modern slavery.

“We regularly get contacted by all kinds of temporary visa holders,” says Stanger.  “Many of these cases involve international students working for cash in poorly paid jobs.”

Stanger explains that in many of these cases, they don’t necessarily match the level of slavery “which is a condition where people are being exploited by some type of coercive means, so they are being threatened with violence, or threatened with the deportation or being manipulated or even forced to stay in exploited situation.”

The temporary visa holders don’t necessarily meet these conditions, Stanger says, “but it certainly creates a furtive situation. They are one step away from slavery.”

Jenny Stanger says it is difficult to calculate how many international students are currently exploited in Australia.

"So many international students are vulnerable and feel scared to reach out for help”

“One of the reasons it is difficult, is so many international students are vulnerable and feel scared to reach out for help,” she says.

“They don’t know who they can trust, they don’t know what will happen if they reach out for help. So it’s a very difficult number to measure. That 4,300 number [of ‘modern slaves’] could be much higher. We just don’t really know at this point.”

Stanger says she hopes that the government will work harder to look after what she calls an important “resource of the Australian economy.”

“International students make a lot of money for Australian educational institutions; they make a lot of money for tourism. They contribute so much to our economy and yet so many of them are being used and abused right in our neighbourhoods. 

“It is certainly a group of people that deserve respect and support, acknowledgment for their contribution.”

As to who these workers should reach out to, Stanger says that trade unions should be offering greater support for temporary and student workers.

“I do think that it’s a really important role for unions to play a greater role at this stage - strengthening the role of the union to be able to engage and support temporary workers.”

“My advice is even if you’re scared and you don’t know if you can trust anyone, don’t suffer in silence any longer - and reach out for help.”

Credits
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Investigative journalists: Trinh Nguyen and Olivia Nguyen (SBS Vietnamese Radio)

TV Reporter: Luke Waters

Online Editor: Genevieve Dwyer

Radio Producer: Ron Sutton

Content Manager: Mark Cummins

Supervising producer: Florencia Melgar

Photographer (of header image): Hung Dao

*Some names of sources have been changed throughout the story.