Asia-Pacific

Malaysian restaurant owners fined over $200,000 for exploiting workers with 'similar culture'

A chef prepares food in a restaurant in this file photo. Source: AAP

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.

Two migrant Malaysian business operators are facing more than $200,000 in penalties for exploiting five Malaysian and Taiwanese workers at their three Japanese restaurants in Brisbane.

Malaysian couple Iee Wee Song and Siew Lay Yeoh were found to have underpaid Malaysian and Taiwanese visa-holding employees at their Teppanyaki Lovers and Nigi Nigi in the Brisbane CBD, and Ku-O in the suburb of Sunnybank.

They paid staff as little as $10 per hour. Australia's minimum wage is $17.70 per hour.

The five workers - holding student, bridging and partner visas - were underpaid between $13,880 to $45,182 each (totalling $148,710) between November 2011 and October 2014.

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Judge Salvatore Vasta, who imposed the penalties in the Federal Circuit Court on Monday, said the fact that Song and Yeoh had exploited employees of a similar cultural background was particularly disturbing.

"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," Justice Vasta said in his judgment.

He said the owners were responsible for ensuring fair and just treatment in compliance with Australian legislation.

"There is an obligation on them to ensure that workers from a similar culture to the employers are not exploited," Justice Vasta said.

In this file photo, seafood is cooked with a gas burner.
In this file photo, seafood is cooked with a gas burner.
AAP

Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James said overseas workers were entitled to the same pay as Australians.

"I am increasingly concerned about the number of employers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds who are exploiting workers from within their own ethnic communities," she said in a press release.

"Overseas workers are entitled to the same wages as Australian citizens and we are actively seeking to dispel the myth that it's OK to pay overseas workers a 'going rate' that undercuts the lawful minimum wage rates that apply in Australia."

Song and Yeoh were penalised $40,500 and $32,400, respectively.

Their companies Tsuyoetsu Pty Ltd and Taikuken Pty Ltd were penalised $99,000 and $29,200, respectively.

In their submission, the owners said they had little business experience in Australia and were naive about how to set up a business in the country.

But Justice Vasta disagreed.

"It does seem that for people with a level of naivety, they were able to set up one business and then incorporate and set up another business and then incorporate and set up a third business, so the level of naivety has to be seen in that light," he said.

"I don't accept that as being a true state of affairs.

"At the very best for [Mr Song], one could say that he was acting with a large degree of willful blindness as to what his obligations were."

SBS has contacted the owners for comment.

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