Twenty sushi outlets across the Hunter and Central Coast have ripped off 261 employees by more than half a million dollars, a Fair Work Ombudsman compliance operation has revealed.
The employment watchdog will announce today it has retrieved $666,629.53 worth of underpayments and missed entitlements for workers at stores in Newcastle, Maitland, Raymond Terrace, Tuggerah and other locations across the region.
The Hunter-Central Coast busts made up more than half the 39 stores across NSW, Queensland and ACT that were found to have breached legal conditions for employees. Money recovered for Hunter-Central Coast workers represented almost 90 per cent of the total that the ombudsman retrieved for employees across two states and in the nation’s capital.
Only six of the sushi stores audited during the operation complied with all employment laws, but none of those were in the Hunter.
Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said the investigation came after repeated calls for help from workers.
“Our activity identified that sushi eateries often employ vulnerable workers including young workers, migrant visa holders and those from non-English-speaking backgrounds,” Ms Parker said.
“The Fair Work Ombudsman has a strong focus on protecting the rights and entitlements of these vulnerable workers as they may not be fully aware of their workplace rights or are reluctant to complain.”
Fair Work inspectors also targeted record-keeping and pay slip breaches during the blitz, which began in late 2015. Overall, inspectors issued nine fines, 15 formal cautions, six compliance notices and have started court action against six operators – including two in the Hunter.
A compliance report that the Fair Work Ombudsman will release today said legal action being considered against another three outlets.
Read more: Sushi staff underpaid $70,000
Fair Work’s compliance report said inspectors selected most of the outlets randomly, with six targeted based on calls for help or previous intelligence.
The report said 54 per cent of disputes that sushi outlet workers lodged with the Fair Work Ombudsman between 2013 and 2017 involved an employee who was a visa holder.
“During the site visits, Inspectors spoke with employees about their employment experiences, including hours of work, rates of pay, availability of leave and their employer’s practices of recording hours of work and providing pay slips,” it said.
According to the report, nine business owners “knowingly provided false or misleading employee records” during the investigation – four allegedly did so multiple times.
Ms Parker said she was “particularly disappointed” with the high rate of record-keeping breaches investigators found.
She said follow-up checks would be conducted.
“New laws mean employers face significantly higher penalties for serious breaches and we have no tolerance for employers that give inspectors false records,” she said.
The Newcastle Herald has previously reported on two business owners who have been caught up in Fair Work’s operation.
In August, Lydia Chang – who owned Sushi Revolution stores at Waratah, Hamilton and Cooks Hill before her business was liquidated – was fined $36,000 in the Federal Circuit Court for underpaying four Korean nationals $33,225 and providing false and misleading information to the Fair Work Ombudsman.
Two of the employees were 20-years-old, all four were in Australia on working holiday visas and required an interpreter to communicate with investigators.
Meanwhile, Fair Work is continuing its Federal Circuit Court pursuit of Kiyoshi Hasegawa, who owns two Tokyo Sushi outlets at Erina Fair and one at Fletcher, for allegedly underpaying 31 employees more than $70,000.
A final ruling from the court is yet to come after a penalty hearing was held in May, this year.
“While the Fair Work Ombudsman never excuses employers who underpay their workers, we know that labour represents a significant cost in the food industry,” Ms Parker said.
“Although everybody loves cheap sushi, perhaps we should ask ourselves – is what I’m paying enough to cover workers’ minimum wages and entitlements?”