The Fair Work Ombudsman has warned of the true cost of cheap sushi, after recovering nearly $30,000 in unpaid wages during a blitz of stores across Canberra.
The employment watchdog audited 45 sushi stores across the ACT, NSW and Queensland after an increase in calls for help from staff, Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said.
Most stores were chosen at random, with only 15 per cent targeted due to allegations of underpayment.
Fair Work inspectors found 39 of the 45 stores broke workplace laws.
That included underpayment at 37 stores, and breaches of record-keeping and payslip laws at 29 stores.
“We were particularly disappointed with the high level of record-keeping breaches discovered in the activity and will conduct follow-up checks at non-compliant sushi outlets," Ms Parker said.
Of the seven Canberra businesses audited, five were deemed to have breached at least one workplace law.
Fair Work had alleged the store failed to pay staff the minimum wage, casual loading, penalty rates or leave entitlements, and did not make the correct agreements with part-time employees in line with the award.
A Fair Work spokesman said the store's owner, Rebecca Yi Jeoung Shin, had admitted to the breaches and both parties were awaiting the court’s decision on penalties.
All up, the ombudsman recovered $746,203 for 397 workers, related to underpayments of minimum ordinary hourly rates, casual loading, penalty rates and overtime.
Inspectors issued a total of $17,850 in fines, 15 formal cautions, six compliance notices, and took six of the most serious cases to court.
As part of that litigation, the Federal Court fined a Newcastle sushi store owner $36,000 for underpaying four Korean nationals on 417 working holiday visas by $33,225.
Ms Parker said it was a common story.
“Our activity identified that sushi eateries often employ vulnerable workers including young workers, migrant visa holders and those from non-English-speaking backgrounds," she said.
"The Fair Work Ombudsman has a strong focus on protecting the rights and entitlements of these vulnerable workers as they may not be fully aware of their workplace rights or are reluctant to complain."
Ms Parker said consumers could play a role in ensuring workers were paid fairly.
“While the Fair Work Ombudsman never excuses employers who underpay their workers, we know that labour represents a significant cost in the food industry," Ms Parker said.
"Although everybody loves cheap sushi, perhaps we should ask ourselves - is what I’m paying enough to cover workers’ minimum wages and entitlements?”
Those inspections were also prompted by a higher number of requests for help.
For help, visit fairwork.gov.au or call the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94.