“It was a bad mistake”: Restaurant repays cook $28,000 in underpaid wages

Melbourne’s Oriental Teahouse has agreed to pay one of its cooks $28,000 in unpaid wages after paying her $13 an hour to make dumplings.

The restaurant group operates two venues in Melbourne’s central business district along with one in Chadstone and one in South Yarra.

Run by David Zhou, the restaurant group makes much of its food at a factory in Coburg, where the cook was employed.

According to a report in Fairfax, the Chinese woman had been working as a cook at the factory for two-and-a-half years.

She claimed she was paid below award wages and there was bullying and harassment of the largely non-English speaking workers who were unaware of their industrial rights.

The cook claimed she was paid under the award rate of about $14.50 an hour, did not get paid leave loading when she took holidays, was required to work more than a standard eight hour day with no overtime and was asked to work weekends and public holidays without penalty rates.

Zhou told SmartCompany the underpayment was not intentional and the case was an anomaly.

“We had trouble finding out about it because she was not returning calls, if she really had issues she should have raised the question a long time ago,” he says.

“I just ask myself why has this happened and I talked to my bookkeeper about why has this happened and I really think it is a bad mistake.”

Zhou says Oriental Teahouse has tried hard to be a good business, with many staff working for the group for 10 and 15 years.

“We are a happy company and a happy family and always generous but we made a mistake, as more and more people come on board things can get complicated and particularly these HR things,” he says.

“We ask people for their tax file numbers and declare tax and so many restaurants don’t do that.”

Zhou says businesses are trying to do the right thing but the policies and regulations surrounding employment can be difficult to understand.

“I work until I’m sleeping on the desk in the office, everybody wants to be a good person, it is very rare that somebody wants to be bad,” he says.

“What hope does the average small business person have? It is really a challenge; don’t just make all these policies for somebody who has not even been in the industry.”

Human resources consultant Greg Halse, whose company Crossroad Human Resources represented Zhou in the dispute, said the regulations surrounding Australia’s employment laws were particularly onerous for small to medium business.

“The lack of clarity, the constant changes we find in our regulatory industrial relations systems over decades have made businesses very unsure about what is locked in for the next period of their business cycle,” he says.

“Small to medium businesses that are trying to operate with some consistency and constancy find it very challenging.”

Halse says Oriental Teahouse worked closely and cooperatively with the Fair Work Ombudsman to resolve the claim.

“In my view you have two types of employers, those who intentionally go out and go to the lowest common denominator or pay and those who are genuinely trying to manage the human resources cost base and people in a positive way,” he says.

“I know Oriental Teahouse was the latter, they were absolutely cooperative and supportive to fixing it.”

Halse says the legal system can be very costly for SMEs but advocates working with the Ombudsman in instances of a claim of underpayment.

“When you work closely with the Ombudsman and you find out what should have been paid in the past you can quickly avoid legal costs and court costs,” he says.

A spokesperson for the FWO said the Ombudsman investigated a complaint relating to the Oriental Tea House’s Melbourne factory last year.

“The matter was resolved by way of the employer making a voluntary back-payment to a worker and no further action was required,” he said.

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