A national proactive investigation of 51 fast food outlets, restaurants and cafés employing Korean workers has recovered $161,551 in unpaid wages for 284 workers.

Between August and December last year, food businesses in Brisbane (13), Sydney (12), Perth (11), Melbourne (10) and Canberra (five) were investigated by Fair Work inspectors.

The targeted audits were in response to findings of previous food sector investigations, which had raised concerns about the exploitation of workers, including students, from Korea. Young and migrant employees had also flagged concerns with the regulator.

Inspectors interviewed employees, managers and storeowners during site visits and checked employment records and pay slips.

The regulator found 36 of 51 audited outlets (71 percent) were non-compliant with workplace laws. Of these, 61 percent had underpaid employees and 75 percent had not met pay slip and record-keeping obligations. Underpaying penalty rates (26 percent) and failing to issue pay slips (22 percent) were the most common breaches.

Korean migrants made up a significant number of the affected employees of businesses in breach, particularly student visa holders. Migrant workers from a range of other countries were also impacted.

Total recoveries were $95,984 for 65 workers at five Melbourne businesses; $31,376 for 139 workers at six Brisbane businesses; $22,827 for 31 workers at four Sydney businesses; $8,259 for 24 workers at three Canberra businesses; and $3,105 for 24 workers from four Perth outlets.

Recoveries from individual businesses ranged from $18 for four employees in a Perth business to $56,688 for 11 employees of a Melbourne business.

In response to the breaches, inspectors issued 20 Compliance Notices requiring employers to rectify breaches of the law, resulting in the full back-payments of $161,551. There were also 34 Infringement Notices (total penalties of $39,480) for pay slip and record-keeping breaches, and two formal cautions.

“Australian workplace laws protect all workers, regardless of nationality or age,” Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said. “As this investigation shows, the Fair Work Ombudsman prioritises matters involving migrant workers, who may be particularly vulnerable due to visa status and have limited knowledge of their rights.

“While this investigation commenced prior to the pandemic, the FWO continues to enforce workplace laws in the food sector as a priority. We do so in a proportionate manner, knowing that COVID-19 has had a significant impact on many businesses in the fast food, restaurant and café sector.”

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