Korean migrant workers remain unfairly treated

The sour reality of Korean migrant workers

Visa holders and migrant workers in Australia are vulnerable in the workplace due to a number of factors. On July 1st 2018, Australia’s minimum wage was raised by 3.5 cents – from $18.29 an hour to $18.93 an hour. While a small, forward step for many, a silent immigrant working class remain left behind…

Unfair Wages Remains a Reality for Korean Visa Holders

Sue* opens the door with weary-eyes, but the wrinkles around her eyes are overshadowed by her bright and youthful smile.

Sue is 59 years old and at home, she likes to wear matching tracksuits and keeps her hair short and neat. The immigrant from Korea rents out a small bedroom in the Asian dominated suburb of Eastwood. She chose the sublet room for its close proximity to the Korean restaurant where she has worked for over nine months.

“Most days, I work nine AM to nine PM. It’s mostly standing all day, but I do get to sit down and eat lunch between three or four PM when there are no customers. Korean customers eat sporadically,” she explains in her native Korean language.

When Sue first arrived in Australia, she worked for her sister’s restaurant where conditions were easier, but after the store shut down, she began her search for alternative employment.   

An ad for ‘kitchen hand’ was listed in an online forum Hojunara, and like many young and old immigrants from Korea, it’s the first point of reference. Sue had worked in a variety of hospitality roles in Korea so she was hardly nervous when the small business owner invited her to start working.

“The hours are more or less the same as Korea, and the work conditions are also similar. But, here I’m getting paid better,” says Sue.

By ‘better’, she is referring to her pay rate of $16 per hour, less than the minimum wage.  

I know lots of Australians get paid something like $20 to $25 an hour but I can’t find a role like that if I can’t speak good English and everywhere here is the same.

With only a verbal agreement of wages and working hours, Sue’s employer remains exempt from complying with minimum wages, superannuation contributions or overtime rates. Employee benefits such as annual leave are out of the question, and for most Korean owned and operated restaurants, penalty rates for public holiday hours rarely apply.

Immigrant workers reluctant to seek help for fear of visa cancellations

Australia plays host to a largely silent class of immigrant workers that remain vulnerable to exploitation and are unprotected from the law. The ‘cash-in-hand’ arrangement is not a foreign concept for those on a Working Holiday Visa, 457 Visa or recent arrivals to Australia, who get paid less than the minimum wage, but many are reluctant to seek help for a perceived fear of a visa cancellation.

A range of educational and multi-language resources are available online, as well as an Anonymous Reporting tool for all employers and employees on the Government’s Fair Work website. A spokesperson for the Fair Work Ombudsman says that despite the available resources, a lack of awareness of rights and available resources contributes to persistent underpayment of Korean visa-holders.

“We know that fears of visa cancellation may prevent many visa holders, including Korean nationals, from seeking workplace help from us.”

“A person’s temporary visa will not be cancelled if they had an entitlement to work as part of their visa, believe they have been exploited at work, have reported their circumstances to us and are actively assisting us in an investigation..”, explained a spokesperson for the Fair Work Ombudsman.  

Businesses continue to underpay immigrant workers

Reports of underpaid migrant workers began to surface in 2016, prompting a government report into ‘The Exploitation of Temporary Work Visa Holders’. Despite the enforcement of large fines on businesses and agents caught exploiting immigrant workers, underpaid workers are still in demand. According to a recent audit by Unions NSW, approximately four out of five jobs that target Chinese, Korean, and Spanish speakers, were advertised with illegal wages.

In 2016, The Fair Work Ombudsman launched a Korean Australian Engagement Strategy, to raise awareness amongst business leaders and stakeholders in the Korean community to educate Korean employers and employees about Australian workplace laws.

“We are also actively seeking to dispel the myth that it’s OK to pay migrant and visa holders a ‘going rate’ that undercuts the lawful minimum wage rates that apply in Australia,” said a spokesperson for the Fair Work Ombudsman.

According to Sue, tax evasion is a common occurrence among small Korean businesses and interlinked with unfair wages.

“Store owners only go to Korean tax agents who know the Australian laws very well. They don’t have to declare how much staff they have or how much earn and pay. It’s expected everywhere you go,” she says.  

Sue dreams to apply for a new job in Aged Care. She hopes her current situation is only temporary, but many remain in her situation.

“I am learning English in my room every day so I can be hired to work with an Australian company. That’s what I’m saving up and waiting for these days…” she said.

*Names have been changed for this story. 

Streetwear label speaks up about gender inequality

Every dollar we spend is a monetary vote, demonstrating demand and indicating what we deem valuable. From plastic bottles to cotton T-shirts – what we choose to consume has short and long-term impacts on the lives of people.

LISNUP is a modern streetwear label that goes beyond the latest trends. Instead, each item gives consumers an opportunity to donate a part of the cost to a charity of their choice.

Adam Khafif, founder of LISNUP, started the streetwear line at age 15 with a vision to rally people to ‘listen up’ and support the issues of the day. Today, his social enterprise inspires a fashion-forward and social media literate generation to pay attention to issues such as human trafficking, youth homelessness, and gender inequality.

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“The current logo is inspired by Basquiat, who said ‘I cross out words so you will see them more. The fact that they’re obscured makes you want to read them.’ I felt this fits perfectly with what I’m trying to accomplish – making people pay attention in one way or another.”

LISNUP takes a spin on the social enterprise model – giving consumers the option to select where their money is invested.

“The point of LISNUP is that each person takes away something different, from both the message and the mission. I choose nonprofits that each focus on a different cause to allow for a more personalized experience for the buyer.”

For Adam, the collaboration between a message and a design is an organic process that cannot be forced. In some instances, it can take up to two years to conceptualise the right design to pair with an issue, and every message on a LISNUP collaboration is personal to Adam.

“Usually, a theme, a lyric or a quote will sit in my head for a while before I work on it. I never want to force a message or force a process… Over time I think of different messages and different visuals, and try to pair them up in my head…,” explained Adam.

Hype and street cred are important currencies for fashion designers and streetwear enthusiasts but for Adam, his streetwear designs involve a conversation about complex issues of the day.

“I chose streetwear because I saw fashion as music… It’s a blank canvas, the same as a beat, and it’s up to the designer to write to it.

A shirt is a track, with endless possibilities. You can sing on it or rap on it, you can choose to put out a meaningful message or you can put out something that just sounds good.

Introducing ‘Career Woman’:

‘Career Woman’ is LISNUP’s most recent collab. On the canvas of a blue Champion crewneck, a pop art image of a crying woman is depicted with the text “what do I need to do to get paid like a man?”

The idea presented itself as Adam witnessed his wife’s ongoing battle for fair wages and realised the breadth and depth of gender inequality.

I’m married to an incredible journalist/entrepreneur and I’ve seen the Hell that she goes through trying to get paid fairly, so it’s definitely been at top of mind the last few years…” he said.

CW_ 1

The career woman line first caught my eye on Instagram for its bold colours and exclusivity, the caption stating “The only way to get access to this new piece is to DM @Adamkhafif on IG for the password.”

So I reached out to him (#fangirl) and here’s what Adam had to say about the Career Woman line:

It’s a full-circle concept…

Champion sweaters, popular in the 90s, made a comeback into pop culture through a series of versatile collaborations with coveted streetwear brands such as Supreme, Vetements, Undefeated and A Bathing Ape. The iconic logo has since been revived, picked up by icons Chance the Rapper and Kylie Jenner.

Adam strategically aligned his message with the Champion brand, recalling his childhood home where his parents’ closet was stocked with Champion sweaters.

Since pop art gives off a retro feel, using a brand that gives off a similar nostalgia just adds to the full-circle concept,” he said.

With a multi-layered message

When Adam commissioned his idea to artist Kara Underwood, he noticed the ‘whiteness’ of historic pop art and the lack of mainstream pop art pieces that represent minorities.

The first version was unimpressive, and by that I mean, it looked like every other pop art piece: white.

After discussions with his wife, exploring how factors like race and sexual orientation can affect gender discrimination, the design was iterated to feature an ethnically ambiguous character.

The layers are my favourite part of the design…As a male, it’s easy for me to put a feminist quote on a shirt and sell a buttload, but it’s different to actually understand the layers and understand that even in gender discrimination, not all women are treated equally,” he explained.

“Depending on ethnicity, minority women make roughly 15% less than white women. The design wouldn’t be complete without recognizing the inequality across the board.”

It’s actually a simple problem

👨🏼= 10
👨🏾 = 7
👩🏼= 8 💰
👩🏾= 6.5 💰

Another eye-catching element of Career Woman is in the effective use of emojis to simply explain the problem and appeal to a social media savvy generation.

I think younger people are actually more in tune with social issues because everything today is about being PC and they didn’t have as much time to grow up conditioned to think a certain way about masculinity or race, etc. They were basically born on social media… it’s so much more dynamic,” he explains.

Food for thought: Gender Inequality in Australia

Across the world, women consistently earn less than men and are concentrated in the lowest-paid and least secure forms of work. In Australia, the gender pay gap is below the global average of 23 per cent, but the reality of the difference still exists. Here’s a quick snapshot of key stats from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2018 report on gender equality:


In Australia, the wage gap is 15.3 per cent – that means for every one dollar a male makes, a woman makes 15 per cent less (based on the average full-time weekly wage).

According to the report, 47 per cent of the workforce in 2018 are women but across the private and public sector, women are over-represented in low-paid, part-time roles and remain under-represented in leadership positions. Astonishingly, Australian women will also have to work an extra 56 days a year to earn the same pay as men for doing the same work.

In light of the current wage disparity, the average superannuation balance for women at retirement (aged 60-64) is 42.0% lower than those for men. When we add this up, Australian women who reach retirement will have an average of $113,660 less superannuation than the average male. 

*Read more about sex discrimination in the workplace here and show LISNUP some love here.

asian-australian identity

Does my surname sound too Asian?

It all started with Dad. At some point during high school, as my primary guardian, he began signing my school papers with ‘Young’ instead of ‘Yang’.My dad was always a joker and in the nonchalant manner in which he spoke about the name change, it seemed almost like a normal thing to do.  I didn’t concern myself much with the difference between his last name and mine – until the anomaly became a permanent alteration.

At the dining table one evening, my dad informed the family he had legally changed his last name to ‘Young’.  My grandmother also lived with us at the time but instead of responding with confusion, she only laughed when my dad mocked the surname ‘Yang’.

w_ dadHe explained his new name made him sound ‘less Asian’ — especially when paired with his white-sounding first name, Earl. Dad had moved to Australia from Korea at a time when being Asian was more of condition than a cultural inheritance. As a labourer, he spent his early working years representing a coloured minority and to this day, he enjoys every opportunity to accentuate his Aussie accent.

Dad speaks English as well as the next white Australian and he’s competent at a variety of skilled and strategic jobs. So why not shift a few letters in his surname and be seen as equals — he thought — at least on paper? It was a radical, but ingenious move. And one that he encouraged me to consider “for the sake of my future” once I turned 18.

Attempting to bypass career stereotypes with my fake surname

My surname only started to become a practical hindrance in my early university years, when job applications and career decisions came to play. With each resume and cover letter I crafted, I became more acutely aware of my ‘Asianness’ and through an innocent shifting of two little letters, I attempted to erase the striking orientality from my name.

At university, I yearned to become a journalist, but the number of Asian names in the roles I coveted were few and far between. There was a plethora of Asians who were bankers, accountants or lawyers but in areas of public life, it seemed Asian names didn’t get a chance to shine.

A name is like a map, a blueprint to where we’re headed and who we’re meant to be in this world.

professional identity as an asian australian

A change in my Gmail setting was all it took to rid of my Asian last name and the career stereotypes that accompanied it. Like Dad, I was curious to see how far a last name like ‘Young’ could take me but before I knew it, I’d submitted more than a dozen job application with my partly-fake last name.

As I applied for writing internships at newspapers and different marketing departments, my adjusted surname gave me the reassurance that I had an equal chance at a role and least an unsuccessful application had nothing to do with my ethnicity.

I wanted to relieve the burden of superseding the stereotypes that came with the visible ‘Asianess’ on my CV. I double, triple, quadruple checked each sentence because, with a last name like ‘Yang’, I assumed even an iota of error was unforgivable. The simple act of signing off as ‘Shona Young’ meant I no longer felt the need to prove myself with flawlessly crafted emails and exceptional English. This is what being white must feel like, I thought. With two or more emails signed off as ‘Shona Young’, I began to grow accustomed to the effect my Anglo pen-name had on my shy Korean self.

Job hunts as an Asian AustralianI hung on to my ‘fake’ surname until the end of university, when I came clean the moment I landed my first part-time job in the marketing department of a small technology company. They didn’t seem to notice the inconsistency of my surname on my email signature and my financial documents. The official paperwork was completed and from payslips to business cards and company email addresses, once again my real name was on full display.

Only this time around, I had an opportunity to build it up with my own hard work. Each blog post I’d written for the company was penned with ‘Shona Yang’ and my every milestone was congratulated. I may not be able to change my ethnicity, but I found myself carving out a new future beyond just an Asian name. Like many others, it was the chance I had waited for.

Asian-Australians are still underrepresented

In recent years, there has been a growing number of Asian-Australians surfacing in prominent positions; some with a surname that is more difficult to pronounce than others.

There is still a long way to go for an Asian-Australian however, who remain underrepresented in public forums, on screens and in leadership positions. According to this year’s Blueprint for Cultural Diversity and Inclusive Leadership by the Human Rights Commission, professionals from a non-European or Indigenous background only account for 5 percent of leadership positions amongst Australia’s ASX 200 companies.

Only 2.7 percent of non-Europeans currently occupy C-level positions and it’s safe to say that cultural diversity and equal representation is yet to be a common occurrence in Australia’s public and corporate realms.

Asian australians

Unlike my Dad, I could never justify a complete change in my name. Now, after having worked alongside talented men and women with Asian last names and a growing body of work I can call my own, I have reverted my Gmail signature and LinkedIn profiles back to ‘Shona Yang’. There are times when I still wonder whether I am being judged by my name, but I’m also starting to see the unique privilege that comes with it. It is a heritage, a pillar of my identity and a chance to resist stereotypes that are still pervasive in our society. As for my Dad — for better or worse — his name remains Earl Young.

Ten noteworthy #MeToo tweets

Social media ‘movements’ come and go and only few will outlive its digital lifespan. Recently, pockets of #MeToo (and #HimThough) posts have caught my eye, and undoubtedly yours too.

It was nothing more than a positive sentiment at first, but the trail of posts from friends and old colleagues have been hard to shake off. That’s the power of storytelling – one act of bravery that momentarily makes you stop and reflect on what actually goes on.

The #MeToo campaign actually started years ago by @TaranaBurke, an advocate, youth worker and blogger for women of colour. She says, the movement aims to radicalize the notion of mass healing.


It caught on after actress Alyssa Milano publicly shared her own #MeToo story and invited victims around the world to post #MeToo as a symbol of solidarity. To some extent, it’s shed light on the reality of sexual harassment and the varying degrees of it too. It’s given a glimpse of the many faces of the issue and just the sheer ubiquity of any form of harassment.

I started reading a lot of #MeToo posts

So you too huh?

Some of the stories have been difficult to read. Others have been heartwarming. But a story is still a story.

There’s no common thread of the #MeToo posts – it’s not a racial issue or even a gender issue. It’s affected men and women alike and the one simple fact that connects us all – everyone has been affected either physically, emotionally, or both.

The ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘when’, aren’t counted in magnitude but in memories of pain and fear. For some, including myself, these memories have resurfaced with every hashtag.

Like anything else, the momentum will slow and the impact will dull. People can say the attempt is futile or your story is inconsequential but what makes a lasting impact is one degree of change – whether it’s your ability to start talking about your experience, or a sharpened sensitivity towards others, the stories speak for themselves.

From the heap of gold out there, here are ten noteworthy #MeToo tweets:

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Beauty in the most unlikely of places

Entering the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) started with a desire to see and experience beauty in the north. And beauty, I did see.

You can’t venture into the DPRK half-heartedly. I chose to leave behind my phone so with empty hands and a blank SD card, we checked out of Tumen, China, and walked over a bridge to North Hamgyong province, the northernmost township of North Korea. After a mandatory bag check, our passports were stamped, marking our welcomed entry into the DPRK.

The beauty of the North Korea was breathtaking. From the winding mountains to the valleys below, each scene would steal a piece of my heart and leave a smile on my face in exchange.

My first meal in the DPRK included a second helping of a delicious seaweed soup – this would be a frequent occurrence. In fact, each meal was unforgettable –  the organic vegetables, wild roots, seafood and otherworldly Korean side dishes would put my mother’s cooking to shame. There were evenings when there was too much food leftover and although some dishes were left untouched, we always made sure the restaurant staff knew just how pleased we were and that my pants definitely felt tighter than yesterday.

We continued our journey across endless mountains and communes to Chongjin, a large port city and the capital of North Hamgyong. Chongjin is North Korea’s third-largest city with a population of over 600,000 and is known for its strategic port and its production of steel.

We visited towering bronze statues of the ruling Kim family, museums dedicated to the grandmother of the current leader and revolutionary sites, significant in its resistance against Japanese occupation. Each visitation was hosted a party official – typically a woman – dressed in her staple khaki and red uniform, providing impressive details about the design and construction of the monument.

What will remain with me is the beauty of the people. I saw it in the way high schoolers interacted with their friends, I saw it in the eyes of students, in the smiles of grandmas…

We had grown attached with our guides as they watched over us, taught us national songs about mountains and tree planting and sat side by side on our bus. There were moments when our interactions with the tour guides was so ordinary – when Mr Lee told us about the butterflies in his stomach as he first held his girlfriend’s hands, when Mr Kim laughed at my poor Chinese pronunciations, when they asked if my fever was improving or when he showed us pictures of his daughter.

The beginning moments with our guides may have been full of pleasantries and careful conversations but by the end of our designated time together, we had shared much more.

The goodbye was difficult, so tender and permanent. There was a real end in our goodbyes. It was as if we were back in time, in an age when technology was limited so people who journeyed across oceans said goodbye as if it were the last.