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Noodle Kitchen accused of 'blatant' exploitation

A popular Chinese restaurant chain is facing court action for allegedly exploiting overseas workers.
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Noodle Kitchen accused of

Noodle Kitchen accused of 'blatant' exploitation

17 July 2017

​This story was originally featured in the Financial Review.

A popular Chinese restaurant chain that was the top corporate donor to the Melbourne lord mayor is facing court action for allegedly exploiting overseas workers.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has accused Tina's Noodle Kitchen in Box Hill and Dainty Sichuan in the Melbourne CBD of underpaying 30 employees more than $31,000 in just two weeks following a joint-raid of the businesses with the Immigration Department.

The restaurants' owner-operator Ye Shao, who is husband to chef and co-owner Tina Li, is facing court for aiding and abetting the underpayments with the restaurants' in-house accountant Yizhu "Jessica" Ding.

The employees, mostly on working holiday and student visas, were allegedly paid flat rates of $10 to $22 an hour, despite working six or seven days a week and more than 10 hours a day.

Largest election donor

The FWO's court action came just days after the successful restaurant chain opened its first outlet in the CBD as part of recently announced expansion plans.

The Dainty Sichuan restaurants and their Tina's Noodle Kitchen offshoot started in 2003 and received praise from such visiting celebrity chefs as Anthony Bourdain, who featured the restaurant on his No Reservations television show.

The chain also donated $80,000 to Melbourne lord mayor Robert Doyle's campaign in the city council race last year, by far the largest corporate donation in Victoria's local government elections.
Acting ombudsman Mark Scully said the regulator decided to take court action because of the "allegedly blatant underpayment of vulnerable overseas workers".

"It is not OK for employers to arbitrarily determine low, flat rates of pay," Mr Scully said. "Minimum wage rates apply to everyone in Australia – including visa holders – and they are not negotiable."
According to the FWO's statement of claim, the companies underpaid minimum hourly rates as well as penalty rates for weekend, public holidays, overtime and late-night work.

Some workers allegedly received less than half of what they were entitled to: 17 were underpaid $18,190 at Dainty Sichuan and 13 were underpaid $12,805 at Tina's Noodle Kitchen during the two-week period targeted for audit in June 2016.

Workers allegedly received pay slips that did not record the business name or ABN, did not include any superannuation details and recorded the same amount for pre-tax and after-tax wages.

The companies did not return requests for comment, however the FWO said they had started back-paying the workers.

Orders for external audit

Mr Shao and Ms Ding face maximum penalties of up to $10,800 per breach and the companies face penalties of $54,000 per breach.

The FWO is also seeking a court order requiring the companies to commission a professional external audit of its pay practices and report the results to the FWO to ensure staff are paid the minimum rate.

Mr Scully warned the FWO was prepared to take legal action against anyone allegedly involved in a business model that involved exploitation of workers.

"This can include human resources and payroll officers, line managers, accountants and advisors," he said.

The legal action against Dainty Sichuan's accountant followed a landmark court decision in May that held an accountancy firm was liable for an employer's underpayments of its workers.
 

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