South Australia assault: owner of Adelaide tea shop admits to paying worker $10 an hour

Owner claims viral video was unfairly edited, but expresses regret over violent incident

The owner of the Adelaide shop that was the scene of a violent assault two weeks ago has broken his silence, saying he thinks he was “set up” but admitting to paying his workers $10 an hour.

The interview with the tea shop owner was conducted in Chinese by prominent YouTuber Edgar Lu – known as SydneyDaddy – and makes clear the owner is appearing on camera despite legal advice saying he should not.

In the opening minutes, the owner is asked a series of “yes or no” questions, including whether the two women who initially confronted him over alleged underpayments were actually paid a wage of $10 an hour.

“The young woman’s pay up to the day of the incident was indeed $10 an hour,” he says.

In another question, the man is asked if he could describe how he feels about the incident in two words he says he is “apologetic” and “regretful”.

Throughout the rest of the nine-minute interview, the owner goes on to express anger at what he describes as a “set up”, claiming he was ambushed and that the viral video was unfairly edited to make him look bad.

An earlier statement from the Working Women’s Centre, which is representing two women involved in the incident, said they will be pursuing claims against the owners of the FunTea shop for unpaid wages and a failure to provide a safe working environment on the night of the assault.

Their statement alleges that the owner of the FunTea shop “failed to provide a safe workplace for our clients”, and left it to others to check on the women’s welfare and call an ambulance in the aftermath.

The interview is the latest twist in a two-week saga in which the FunTea owners have been unresponsive to requests to speak to media, pulled down their website and attempted to distance themselves from the incident in a statement sticky-taped to the shopfront door.

In Australia, the Fair Work commission sets the minimum wage. As of 1 July 2020 the absolute minimum wage was $19.84, or $753.80 a week, though the exact minimums change depending on industry and how a worker is classified.

Both SafeWorkSA and the FairWork ombudsman have both opened investigations into apparent underpayments.

Throughout the rest of the nine-minute interview, the owner goes on to express anger at what he describes as a “set up”, claiming the viral video was unfairly edited.

The Guardian has made repeated attempts to contact the owners for comment.

A 30-year-old man from Glen Osmand has been arrested in connection with the assault. Police allege that he is the same man that was captured in the video striking a 20-year-old woman. He was charged with assault and bailed to appear in Adelaide magistrates court in May.

Say Leng Kapsis, the founder of FairGo, a group that campaigns against anti-discrimination that has been organising on the issue of wage theft, says paying below the minimum wage is a widespread practice.

“Of course, not every boss is bad, but there are some big bosses in Chinatown that are really bad,” Kapsis says. “Chinatown is at the epicentre, but this is happening everywhere.”

In a 2017 survey of 624 hospitality workers conducted by the Hospitality Workers Union, one in four reported being underpaid. Another survey of 1,433 international students from 2015 found one in five were underpaid.

Modelling from the McKell Institute suggests $270m is lost each year in South Australia to underpayment, while another report from PWC calculates the loss nationally at $1.35bn.

Footage of one negotiation was reported by the Guardian last year, revealing how the power dynamics of some pay negotiations work.

Kapsis says that as groups like FairGo SA and the SA Labour Info Hub have begun raising awareness about the issue, employers have been adjusting their tactics.

Those looking to hire new staff under-the-table now refuse to make a verbal offer of a wage out of fear of being recorded. Many instead will write a figure on a piece of paper that is shown to the applicant. Afterwards, the paper is destroyed.

“They are very clever,” she says. “They try not to write anything down.”

What makes someone vulnerable to wage theft varies but largely depends on gender, language fluency, familiarity with the Australian legal system and visa status.

For example, those travelling on working holiday visas are often made to perform 88 days of regional work and are at risk of being deported if their employer does not provide a payslip as evidence.

International students, meanwhile, are prevented from working more than 20 hours a week. If an employer offers them a job for more hours but lower pay, the threat of deportation is often used to stop complaints about wages or conditions.

The situation has been made worse in recent times, as international students and casual workers were deliberately excluded from the government’s wage guarantee and income support during the pandemic.

So far the South Australian state government has refused to act on the issue, saying industrial relations is the responsibility of the federal government, which is currently looking to pass its Industrial Relations Omnibus bill.

The legislation proposes to make changes to causal working arrangements in ways that may make it easier to internationally underpay workers.

The Senate Standing Committee examining the bill will meet in Adelaide tomorrow for a public hearing on the bill.


Royce Kurmelovs

The GuardianTramp

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