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. 

Back to the streets of Phnom Penh

A few weeks before I was set to travel to Cambodia, Off-White™ opened its first doors to Sydney. I was Christmas shopping when I noticed the line outside, crowds of shoppers waiting for a chance to browse and buy Virgil Abloh’s coveted collection.

Fast forward three weeks. I’m forty minutes from Cambodia’s nascent capital, in the back streets of an underprivileged district. We’re here to visit a community of brick factory workers. They’re happy to see the bags of rice in the back of the van, and while the adults get down to the business of hand to mouth sustenance, it’s the kids that catch my attention.

I’m immediately reminded of the world I’ve come from. A world that consciously writes out a verdict on your past and future by the items on your sleeves. In more ways than one, high-end streetwear labels have come to represent the value of our existence.

On this particular visit, there’s one label that catches me by surprise. A young boy is clothed in signature yellow and white, the stripes on his shirt are sewn together to spell, ‘O-F-F W-H-I-T-E’. I let out a surprised chuckle as I continue to hold the little hands that wrap around my fingers.

Fashion was never intended to be equal – some choose to wait in line for a chance to wear half a paycheck on our shoulders, while others wait here to collect a kilogram of rice.

The proliferation of fake replicas in Cambodia is no surprise

As the hype of the day changes in the west so too does fake fashion in the developing parts of the world. Four years ago when I visited Cambodia, the standard of fake goods was disappointing. Today, the side carts and overcrowded markets proudly boast the freshest streetwear trend of the day: YEEZY knock-offs. Supreme knock-offs, Nike slip-ons, and Off-White™ shirts have made their way into the backstreets of Phnom Penh – the ubiquity of Off-White™ replicas draped on street kids in Cambodia gives ‘streetwear’ a whole new meaning.

Need to know what’s trending in the world? Take a peek at the scraps on the backs of these street kids who are unknowingly caught up in a furious scramble to keep up with the rest of the world.

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.

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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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