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. 

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.