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Video footage of an alleged assault at a tea house in Adelaide’s Chinatown has pulled focus onto the issue of wage theft and underpayment, especially among migrants and international students. By Royce Kurmelovs.

Wages war in Adelaide’s Chinatown

Say Leng Kapsis speaks at a protest against wage theft in Adelaide’s Chinatown last weekend.
Credit: Royce Kurmelovs

A light drizzle fell across Adelaide last Saturday morning as Jackie Chen and Say Leng Kapsis began setting up for a protest that was months in the making.

The rally was the first organised by members of the Chinese and Nepalese communities against the underpayment of wages to migrants and international students. The choice to hold it in the heart of Adelaide’s Chinatown district was deliberate.

About 150 people clustered together as the rain became heavier.

The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and SA Unions sent representatives in solidarity, while South Australian Labor MLC Irene Pnevmatikos spoke about the need for legislative change. But it was the speeches given by Chen, an organiser with the SA Labour Info Hub, and Kapsis, the founder of Fair Go SA, that drew the strongest response.

Standing between shops that had closed their doors ahead of the protest, the pair spoke of 150 or so businesses they’d been tracking in the Adelaide metropolitan area that paid their workers less than $15 an hour.

“In Africa, there are blood diamonds,” Kapsis said. “Here, in SA, we want no more blood bubble tea.”

The reference was to the event that had galvanised the protest – an alleged assault that took place at FunTea, a nearby bubble tea shop, in late January, which was caught on video and spread quickly through the Chinese social media app WeChat.

The footage has since become a flashpoint in South Australia’s Chinese community over the issue of workers’ rights.

The video appears to capture the moment a young woman – who does not wish to be identified – confronts her employer over allegations of unpaid wages. During the interaction, another man intervenes, striking the young woman in the face. A scuffle erupts. The second man appears to kick the young woman in the stomach. Another woman, also an employee at the bubble tea store, tries to intervene but is pushed backwards.

Last weekend, South Australian police arrested and charged a man in connection with the incident. He is expected to face court on May 7.

Once the footage went public, FunTea’s website went down. A statement was taped to the door of the shop, insisting the assault was committed by a customer who was “not related” to FunTea. The statement said the assault followed a “previous verbal argument” between the customer and the employee.

“The alleged assault was not connected to a complaint about the employee’s pay or rates of pay,” the statement read. “The management and owners of FunTea deplore violence of any sort and have zero tolerance for assaults or violence.”

The statement prompted a response from the Working Women’s Centre South Australia, which is representing the two female employees. On Tuesday this week it named the two men involved and hit back at the store’s owners.

“Our client entirely rejects any assertion that the assault was not in relation to a complaint about her pay,” WWCSA said in a statement. “Our client was asking to be paid her wages for that night and the two weeks prior. This is clear from the video.”

Events took an unexpected turn this week when one of the owners of FunTea gave an interview – against legal advice – to YouTuber Edgar Lu. During the interview, the owner admitted to having paid his workers only $10 an hour.

“The young woman’s pay up to the day of the incident was indeed $10 an hour,” the owner told Lu.

At another point in the interview, the man is asked how he feels about the incident in two words. “Apologetic” and “remorseful”, he answers. He goes on to say he feels “set up”, claiming the original video online was edited to make the event appear worse.

In a statement, lawyers for the two women who worked at FunTea said they do not know who uploaded the video of the alleged assault and were “shocked” to see it appear online.

As of July 1, 2020, the absolute floor on the minimum wage was $19.84 an hour, or $753.80 a week, although exact minimums change depending on industry and how a worker is classified.

Chen says the incident is one example of a broader problem that has gone unchecked for “decades”.

“You can even say it’s been here since they started Chinatown,” Chen said. “People should be angry about this. We had the protest here because Chinatown is the centre of wage theft. It’s the heart, you know?

“But it’s other places, too, out in country areas and in suburbs. Adelaide isn’t alone. ACT has a Chinatown. Brisbane has a Chinatown. Melbourne has a Chinatown. Sydney has a Chinatown. This is happening in these places, too.”

But measuring the extent of the problem can be tricky. Edward Cavanough of the McKell Institute says the statistics available suggest a “staggering” level of exploitation.

Using data gathered from the past 23 audit campaigns run by the Fair Work Ombudsman, carried out across 1700 businesses, Cavanough calculated the total income loss due to wage theft was $170 million a year in South Australia alone.

When PwC used a similar methodology to calculate the loss across the nation, it put the figure at $1.35 billion.

Meanwhile, surveys of workers performed by academics and unions regularly find high rates of underpayment. When the United Workers Union – which represents hospitality workers – surveyed 624 hospitality workers in 2017, it found three in four had been underpaid.

While all casual workers are vulnerable, Cavanough says new migrants, people working on holiday visas and international students are particularly at risk. In the early months of the pandemic, casual workers and international students were excluded from federal government support. The decision led to large lines at charity kitchens around the country, as many stranded students were unable to support themselves.

Events such as these have compounded the risk of exploitation that cuts across other factors such as gender, culture, familiarity with the Australian legal system and a person’s specific visa conditions.

“The visa system is almost rigged in a way that makes it very unlikely that employees who are getting ripped off will ever make an attempt to reclaim their wages,” Cavanough said. “That’s just down to federal policy, through things like the working holiday program.

“That program makes workers go into regional areas and tick off 88 days of work in order to stay in the country. This creates a huge power imbalance because if the employer doesn’t provide the pay slip, that’s too bad. You get kicked out of the country.”

Even within the Chinese community, few people have been willing to discuss the issue of underpayment.

At the time of the alleged assault at FunTea, the most prominent figure to speak about the incident was Cr Simon Hou, a real estate agent who belongs to a bloc of six pro-business votes on the Adelaide City Council.

Hou confirmed in a television interview, and in subsequent posts to his WeChat account, that he personally knew the men involved in the FunTea incident. He described the alleged assault as a “disaster to the community”.

“As soon as I saw the footage, I [sent] a photo [to the man] straight away and said, ‘Are you mad?’ ” he said. “ ‘This is stupid. I mean, this is a stupid action. What makes you think that you can do it?’ ”

While condemning the violence, Hou has said little about the issue of wage theft more generally – an omission that’s sparked ire online from younger members of the community.

One university student co-authored a petition to Adelaide City Council calling on Hou to resign – an action that was met with a threat of defamation action from the councillor, which included demands for $50,000 in compensation and an apology.

Despite repeated attempts to contact Cr Hou for comment, he did not respond by deadline. The Saturday Paper is not suggesting his defamation claim is unmeritorious.

At the street level, Kapsis says she has encountered pushback against Fair Go SA’s efforts to raise awareness about the issue among workers and employers.

She says she has received threats over plans for more protests. Kapsis has also learnt of employers who are finding new ways to avoid creating evidence that may be used against them in any future investigations.

“That is insane,” Kapsis says. “Chinatown is supposed to be the place where all Chinese, regardless of where you came from, you come here and feel you are protected. Chinatown is not supposed to be the place where you come here to be discriminated against and exploited.

“We should do more. We should push further. The Australian universities depend on international students, but Australia is getting a reputation for doing nothing to protect international students.

“If the government were to step in and really look like they’re doing something, it can be a win-win situation.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2021 as "Bubble tea, toil and trouble".

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Royce Kurmelovs is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist and author.