February 2017

Essays

Ann Arnold

The new black

© Seren Dal / iStock

The overworked, underpaid, cash-in-hand worker is becoming increasingly common

Tomoe* flew home to Japan in November after a two-year working holiday in Australia. She had six employers in that time. All bar one of them had either underpaid or not paid her, or had avoided tax and other obligations by paying cash.

By Tomoe’s account, a Japanese restaurant in the inner-Sydney suburb of Newtown paid her $12 an hour as a waitress. In cash. No payslip. A cafe in Paddington paid her $19 an hour as a pastry chef. In cash. No payslip. Only Fratelli Paradiso restaurant, in Potts Point, paid Tomoe formally.

With that exception, Tomoe’s Australian stay was funded through the take-it-or-leave-it terseness of our growing black economy. And, apart from a couple of bright spots, she had a rough ride.


There has been a cultural shift in Australia. In some sectors, underpaying is the new normal – not just in the black economy, where there’s no superannuation or workers compensation or annual leave, but also in the formal economy, through the shirking of award rates or penalties.

Brien Trippas, a former NSW president of the Restaurant & Catering Industry Association, believes 80% of restaurants and cafes are paying off the books, at least partly. And underpaying. “If you were a new employee and you said, ‘I’ve got a tax file number and I want to be paid on the books,’ I think the majority of employers would say, ‘You’re in the wrong place.’”

It’s a trend that is hard to quantify, and harder still to police, mostly occurring in small businesses, like thousands of little spot fires that the under-resourced Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) cannot keep up with.

Occasionally there will be a flare-up. 7-Eleven, Caltex. Large employers with systemic cultures of exploitation. Or companies using labour-hire contractors (in poultry or cleaning, for instance) and turning a blind eye to how staff are paid. Brands that are part of the suburban landscape – Bakers Delight, Swimland, Pizza Hut, the newer Grill’d – have been accused of transgressing awards or enterprise agreements. There’s currently a test case of “sham” contracting: Deliveroo and Foodora, the food delivery services, have been taken to court in Melbourne to test the fairness of their employment of drivers and cyclists without sick leave, superannuation and other employee benefits. And there are the extremes: effectively bonded labour in car washes, nail salons and massage parlours.

Often, the exploitation is by small employers taking shortcuts. They have at their disposal a casualised, non-unionised, young and/or migrant workforce, and presume that labour costs can be kept low by circumventing the wage system. That is, by breaking the law. Call it the new business model.

In a new book titled Temporary Labour Migration in the Global Era, Melbourne academics Iain Campbell, Joo-Cheong Tham and Martina Boese nominate hospitality, children’s services, agriculture, construction, cleaning, clothing and footwear as “hazardous industries”, for migrant workers in particular.

Exploitation of cleaners, by contractors and sub-contractors, is so entrenched that one cleaning business in Sydney, Havencab, advertises award payment of staff as a point of difference. Its website warns potential clients that “there is a huge issue in the cleaning industry with almost weekly prosecutions of companies that have failed to comply”, and that sometimes both the cleaning contractor and the client have been named in the media.

It goes on to say that “all of our staff are directly employed and receive Award wages and entitlements as set out by the Modern Cleaning Services Award 2010”. Imagine!


Tomoe was 23 when she came to Australia in 2015. She had worked in a preschool in Japan, and wanted “to study English and get more experience”. She considered Canada but figured Australia would be warmer. Like many travellers, she started with a one-month English course and homestay with a family in Sydney. That was the easy bit.

She did not want her real name used in this story, and after some deliberation chose the pseudonym “Tomoe”. Later I would read that Tomoe was the name of a fearsome female samurai warrior in the 12th century. This 21st-century Tomoe is no warrior. She does have the requisite strong build, but her unworldliness and tendency to accept what befalls her perhaps made her easy prey.

Tomoe footslogged around inner-city cafes and restaurants with her meagre résumé and limited English, asking for work. There were no takers. A friend put her on to a website for Japanese people in Australia, where there were job ads.

She scored the Japanese restaurant job in Newtown and was grateful, because she was getting desperate. She says she was paid $12 an hour. The national minimum wage then was $17.29. It’s now $17.70 an hour for permanents, or $22.13 for casuals. (It is reviewed annually by the Fair Work Commission and evaluated as a proportion of the median wage.)

The Restaurant Industry Award, which overrides that, begins at the same rate and there are penalty rates for after 10 pm and weekend work. Tomoe said that nothing was explained to her about payment systems or tax when she started at the restaurant. She blamed herself. “I didn’t speak English.”

She figured the pay rate was normal. “Other friends working in Japanese restaurants in Sydney also say that $10 or $12 an hour is normal. So I just accepted it.”

She worked five or six days a week. “Every weekend, they would hand me the cash.” There was another Japanese waitress, and Tomoe thinks the chefs were from Thailand, China and Korea.

The restaurant owner, Chen*, is from mainland China. She had done a bit of restaurant work herself, and ten years ago when a friend at church said she was selling this Japanese restaurant Chen decided to buy it.

Chen says she could find no record of Tomoe’s employment, and did not remember her. “We have a lot of Japanese girls.”

“I think she did not work here very long. With all the staff we record their tax file numbers. It’s possible that we did not get a chance to record her details.” Tomoe says she worked there for two to three months.

Previously, at Tomoe’s English language school, a teacher had helped set her up with a tax file number. “She told me if you work in Australia you need a tax file number. But I didn’t use it.”

Chen says all staff had payslips. So why not Tomoe? “Maybe it was a trial or training. Or maybe there is an issue with her visa and she does not have the right to work. And when I ask for her tax file number she does not give it.”

Would Chen have paid Tomoe $12 an hour? “I don’t think so, because I pay the award. It was a year ago, so it should have been around $16 or something.”

Whether it was $12 or $16, it did not help much with Sydney accommodation. Tomoe was in a crowded Chippendale terrace house, sharing with 11 others, mostly young Europeans. There were four people to a bedroom, with one toilet and laundry in the only bathroom for 12 people. Each person paid $155 a week. The house next door was set up similarly. Both houses would later be declared illegal accommodation and closed down, but not before Tomoe had left without getting her key deposit and bond back from the landlord.


Australia’s temporary-visa migration program is huge. Every year, visas are granted to approximately 300,000 students, 200,000 working-holiday travellers and up to 150,000 skilled workers. The students, in particular, are gold. Our higher education industry is worth $19 billion. It is our second-biggest export industry after natural resources.

But Stephen Clibborn from the University of Sydney Business School says Australia risks significant reputational damage from the employment experiences that some students have here, while they struggle to pay their way through expensive degrees and high living costs.

Clibborn has undertaken the only substantial survey of international student employment. Early last year, 60% of 1433 tertiary students were being paid below the minimum wage, and 35% were paid $12 an hour or under. Most were working in restaurants or cafes, or in retail. For the waiters and kitchen hands, not one was paid weekend award rates. For the shop assistants, no one was paid award rates for weekends or weekdays.

And these employees are unlikely to complain. If their English and experience are limited, they don’t have many options. If the employer provides a meal, or is in other ways “nice”, many are grateful. Some employers, Clibborn found, liked to remind their waiters or shop assistants that there were many more students looking for jobs.

And often workers feel trapped. On student visas the maximum permissible hours of work is 40 per fortnight. If the students are not earning enough, they work more hours and are then petrified that a complaint or a challenge to the boss about pay rates could result in trouble with Immigration.

More recently, Clibborn also surveyed local tertiary students. The results are less dramatic, but still there was substantial underpayment: 15% of the 959 respondents were paid under the national minimum wage. Around half of those in hospitality and a third in retail were being paid under the award rate.

It annoys Brien Trippas, the ebullient chair of the Trippas White Group, which manages hospitality and catering for schools, hospitals and airport lounges, as well as restaurants such as the rotating Sydney Tower Buffet. Trippas does not claim to always get payments right. “We occasionally mispay people and we find out and we act and fix it. ‘We didn’t realise you’d turned 19.’”

But the pattern of underpayment at other workplaces raises his hackles. “I abhor it because it puts my business in an unfair competition.”

Many of his staff are surprised, when they begin work, to be told that “yes, tax will be taken out and yes, you will get it back at the end of the year”. It’s not what they are used to. The temptation to avoid the formalities is there for both employer and employee. Trippas says a standard legal arrangement for a waiter and a small employer might be an hourly daytime rate of $20, of which $3 would go to the government in pay-as-you-go tax. So that’s $17 for the employee. The employer would have 20% on-costs above the $20 per hour: superannuation, workers compensation, holiday pay.

Young employees in particular, he says, will think it’s easier to get the full $20 in cash (or just the $17 that they would otherwise have got after tax). “It’s only when you get older that you start to think about superannuation.”

And the black economy can be a black hole. Sara Charlesworth, a workplace specialist at RMIT University in Melbourne, says “people think that when they’ve accepted cash they’ve behaved illegally. Employers prey on that.”

Charlesworth has no truck with employers who take advantage of employee naivety. “Who has the divine right to make profits? People cook well so they open a restaurant. They pay the rent and electricity that’s required. But somehow wages are negotiable.”

I venture that employers, especially small ones, are under many pressures, and it can be difficult to do the paperwork and keep up with employment regulations.

“They are employers!” Charlesworth is frustrated. “They have to apprise themselves of their obligations, just as they do about the business.”

Young employees are also loath to complain. Of Charlesworth’s three adult children, who have all worked in hospitality, only one of them has ever been paid award wages. She once tried telling one of her children who wasn’t paid overtime: “They’re effectively removing $40 from your wallet each night.” There was little response. And likewise for Trippas, whose high school–aged children work in a local pizza place for $10 an hour, cash. “I say, ‘Well, go and talk to the bloke.’ And they say, ‘Please, Dad. I don’t want to, I’ll lose my job.’” And, Trippas says, they’re happy.

Although young people are often only in these jobs temporarily, Stephen Clibborn urges them to not accept underpayment, because they are bringing down standards for people whose livelihoods depend on those same jobs.


Tomoe left the Japanese restaurant because she wanted to do the requisite 88 days of agricultural work to extend her working holiday visa for another year. This was the change introduced in 2005 to the Working Holiday visa (subclass 417), to help meet a labour shortage in regional areas.

“I picked a nice place to improve my English,” Tomoe says happily. She chose Kingfisher Citrus, a fruit and vegetable farm on the Murray River between Swan Hill and Mildura.

Every weekend, members of the extended Fisher family head off to Melbourne farmers’ markets, four and a half hours away, to sell their produce. Tomoe would go with them. And work with them. But she didn’t get paid. Tomoe was fine with that.

“It’s like homestay. I can live with the family, get food. They don’t need to pay.”

The 417-visa regional work rule has, for most of its existence, included voluntary work. Travellers who wanted a country adventure – or who would do anything to get that extra year on their visa – accepted food and board in exchange for their labour. There was inevitably exploitation, so the government changed the visa rule just over a year ago to preclude voluntary work.

Back in 2015, before the rule change, Tomoe felt pretty lucky. She was the Fisher family’s first international worker. “We loved her!” exclaims Glenda Fisher, who runs Kingfisher Citrus with her husband, Lex, and their two sons and daughters-in-law.

“[Tomoe] was an incredibly responsible, hardworking, easy-to-get-along-with young lady.” Fisher describes evenings with the telly off, discussing “everything you can imagine” to help Tomoe develop her English.

Tomoe spent three months with the family. While there she was injured, falling off the back of a truck at a Melbourne market. “She was naughty, and I told her that,” Fisher says. “She was holding too much in her hand when she climbed on the truck.” Tomoe put her hand out to protect herself as she landed, and damaged her wrist. The Fishers took her to a doctor. X-rays found no broken bone, but the wrist was badly sprained. Medicare covered some expenses and Tomoe’s travel insurance covered the rest.

As she was not formally employed there was no workers compensation, and the injury would curtail Tomoe’s next job.

Elsewhere in the agricultural sector, eerie images were emerging of exploited Taiwanese poultry workers preparing for work in the pre-dawn in South Australia, underpaid horticulture workers in Gippsland, and allegations of sexual abuse, all exposed by the National Union of Workers in the ABC Four Corners program ‘Slaving Away’.

The yearlong Victorian Inquiry into Labour Hire and Insecure Work, which ended last August, found the three standout industries in terms of award breaching were horticulture, meat processing and cleaning. The latter two had many Australian workers as well as migrants.

RMIT’s Anthony Forsyth, who chaired the inquiry, says that in agriculture the purpose of a visa scheme to provide a transient labour supply is problematic. “These backpackers are in a vulnerable position, often quite desperate to get the 88 days [and] many are not aware of their rights.”

Sarah McKinnon, the acting CEO of the National Farmers’ Federation, says there has always been labour hire in agriculture, but now there are many more small operators. It’s what’s known as the fissured workplace, where farmers – and employers in a range of industries – are increasingly disconnected from the people working for them.

“It’s the farmer’s responsibility to watch what labour-hire contractors are offering,” McKinnon says. At the same time she acknowledges that “the whole point of using a labour-hire company is so that you don’t have to get involved, at the busiest time of year”.

During the inquiry, Forsyth heard evidence that the dominant Australian supermarkets were putting pressure on regional producers with high labour costs. That was one of the reasons producers had moved away from direct employment and towards outsourcing. “Most of them know it involves noncompliance with the awards,” Forsyth says.

Whether wilfully indifferent or simply neglectful, the arms-length concept of labour hire is testing notions of responsibility. For a Background Briefing program on ABC Radio National, I covered a case where a group of Mongolian men and women had not been paid a cent for the initial clean of a newly constructed apartment block. It was dusty, difficult work. The contractor who hired them seemed to have disappeared. The Mongolians’ attempts to contact the company that used the contractor brought no response. After I rang that company, a director said he did not want the company name associated with non-payment of labour. Contact was made with lawyers for the Mongolians and a settlement was reached.

In his inquiry report, Forsyth recommended a registration system for labour-hire contractors, where there are currently “very low or no barriers to entry”. He wanted to impose some impediments, he told the Monthly, to “wipe out that dodgy, rogue end of the contracting industry”.

Victoria’s minister for industrial relations, Natalie Hutchins, has said her government is committed to registration, and a spokesperson for the minister said it would likely be implemented in 2018, allowing for the passage of legislation. Both Hutchins and Forsyth are urging a national approach, but a federal Department of Employment spokesperson said only that the department’s Migrant Workers’ Taskforce would consider ways to prevent exploitation through rogue labour-hire companies.

Meanwhile, the National Farmers’ Federation instigated a roundtable in mid December, at which consensus was quickly reached among government, farmer and union reps to have an optional certification scheme for labour-hire providers in horticulture. It would be industry-led, and used as a guide for farmers about which contractors offered the “least risk”.

The backpacker income tax is predicted to push more temporary migrant workers into the black economy, although that’s mitigated at least for those wanting to stay a second year by the need to show payslips for their 88 days of regional work.

Joo-Cheong Tham from the University of Melbourne warns that the risks to workers are about to intensify, and that northern Australia will become the hot spot in more ways than one. Changes are happening “under the radar”, Tham says, to address the labour shortage across the north, as part of the federal government’s “developing northern Australia” mission.

In late 2015, the rule for 462- and 417-visa working-holiday travellers changed for the north: it allowed visa holders to work more than six months for one employer, and in an expanded group of industries, including hospitality. This provided a new, and more stable, workforce. And now, after a change late last year, 462-visa holders, who are more likely to be from developing and/or Asian countries, can also stay a second year.

Crazy, says Tham. “Hospitality is exploitative. It’s hazardous. We know already that agriculture has been hazardous to its workers, and now we’re replicating those circumstances across hospitality as well.”

Some of those workplaces will be a long way from scrutiny.


Fratelli Paradiso is a buzzing contemporary Italian restaurant in Sydney’s Potts Point, with monochrome tonings and an entire wall used as a supersized blackboard menu. Tomoe wanted to work there in the kitchen. She didn’t have the experience but at a job interview explained that she loved cooking and that her brother was an Italian chef. She was invited to try out – she thinks it was for two or four hours – and given the job. Most of the staff were Italian, and she liked working there. For a month of training she was paid $800, and was then promoted. There were, for the first and only time for Tomoe, pay slips. It was a bona fide job.

There was heavy knife work involved, though, and Tomoe said it was causing too much pain in the wrist she had injured in the fall. After three months, she had to quit.

When her wrist had improved, she got a job at a Paddington cafe. They needed a pastry chef and Tomoe now had kitchen experience.

Here she says she was given a choice – payment off the books or pay tax. Tomoe thought because she was not Australian she could not get a tax return. “So I chose cash. It’s easier.” It was $19 an hour, roughly the entry-level award for kitchen staff. No tax, and no super or workers compensation either.

The cafe’s owner, Mira*, did not want to confirm what Tomoe was paid – only that it was “more than $18”. She says she asked Tomoe for her paperwork – tax file number, a copy of her visa – but Tomoe never provided it. Mira is also clearly angry that Tomoe has spoken about her illegal employment. “She was a bit of a bumbling idiot who did not appreciate how much training we put into her.”

One day, during her six months at the cafe, Tomoe was making caramel popcorn. She was tired, and dropped the big pan, the molten contents splashing onto her arm and leg. A colleague drove her to hospital. According to Tomoe, Mira gave her a specific instruction before she left. “She said: ‘Don’t tell at hospital that it happened at work! Say it was cooking at home.’”

The alleged message to lie had not reached the co-worker who brought Tomoe to the hospital, and she explained at reception that it was a work accident. Tomoe panicked. She says she rang Mira, who told them Tomoe could not see a doctor there.

Mira says she cannot recall anything about the instructions. What she does remember is making sure Tomoe ran cold water over the burns before she left the cafe. “She had tried to cover up the burns – that’s how stupid she was.”

Tomoe left the hospital untreated and phoned an Australian friend, Joshua*. Together they rang around to find a medical clinic.

It was four hours before her burns were finally treated. With no workers compensation, Tomoe had to pay for the medical care – about $600. Her travel insurance covered a third of it. Tomoe was off work for a couple of weeks, unpaid. She asked Mira to pay for the medical treatment, but her boss refused.

Mira says that she understands her husband, the chef at the cafe, gave Tomoe several hundred dollars. He had “put a lot of time into training [Tomoe], often gave her lifts home and even took her to get her guitar fixed.” I asked Mira if she felt there was an obligation to cover Tomoe’s expenses from an accident at work. She did not answer.

Most of Tomoe’s burns are not too visible now, apart from a thick, raised scar on her upper arm – a bobble of tissue that’s shaped a bit like a piece of popcorn.


Julie Warren is a cheery, straight-talking organiser and president of the Victorian branch of the National Union of Workers (NUW). She travels around Victoria and New South Wales training delegates – and listening to their workplace stories. Here’s how she has seen the employment landscape change.

“For the first 15 years of my working life, ‘normal’ would be everyone employed on a 38-hour week, with a permanent roster, a career path. Then employers started talking about flexibility. The flexibility to have people come in and do work that others didn’t want to do. Unload a container, picking and packing. Seasonal work or shitty work.”

Warren says that the NUW would agree for a small group to be brought in to provide flexibility. “And to be honest, our members were probably not recognising that this was treating another worker badly.”

But then, as Warren explains, “that pool of workers increased, and employers worked out that, actually, ‘it’s cheaper if we get a labour-hire company’. In the last five years we’ve seen this rapid change in the way people are employed, and inequality in the workplace.”

Casualisation, sitting at around 20% of the workforce, is a common thread for vulnerable workers. Flexibility and choice can work in favour of the employee, but it opens a fat loophole for exploitation. Warren cites the “barbaric” example of someone on four-hour shifts, expected to be available 24/7. “If you’re not available, you don’t get shifts.”

Others talk about the power play of rostering, of giving casuals insufficient hours so that they are “hungry” for more and prepared to do the unpopular shifts.

RMIT’s Iain Campbell, whose research specialty is casual employment, says that casual status is like an officially sanctioned gap in the labour law system. “It allows for the minimum wage, but not much else.” He also says it slips very easily into undeclared employment.

Now in that mix is the labour-hire contractor, who has often won their contract because they promised the cheapest labour. Anthony Forsyth says that during the Victorian inquiry into labour hire he “heard from so many workers that casual work through a labour-hire company is their only option. Employers are right in saying that the drive for flexibility is important, but people would prefer to get a home loan and care for their children.”

Underpinning this picture is a growing inequality. Wage growth is at a historic low – 1.9% in the September quarter last year. Last December, the shadow assistant treasurer, Andrew Leigh, addressed an inequality forum organised by think tank Per Capita. He said that under Prime Minister Robert Menzies wage growth was rapid. “Australia once had a Liberal Party that worked to deliver strong real wage growth.”

The forum was held in a Sydney office tower, and glass elevators could be seen sliding up and down the building next door. There was no such social mobility in the picture that Leigh painted. The starkest form of inequality, he said, is between those who own no assets and earn their living by selling their labour, and those who can live off the proceeds. The middle level of the labour market is disappearing. There is an increase in demand for baristas and security guards, but no increase in pay for them.

A couple of months earlier, an Australian Council of Social Services report concluded that poverty was growing, with 13.3% of Australians below the poverty line. Of those, 20% were employed full time.

In addition, employee vulnerability has increased while unionisation of workplaces has decreased, along with union ability to enter workplaces. “For most of the 20th century, Australia did not have a dedicated employment-law enforcement agency,” says the University of Melbourne’s Joo-Cheong Tham. “The active presence of trade unions was sufficient pressure to enforce the laws.”

Now we have the Fair Work Ombudsman, an agency that has around 230 inspectors to cover millions of workers.

Before last year’s election, the government promised that it would give greater powers to the FWO, and bring in higher penalties for offending employers. A Department of Employment spokesperson has confirmed that the minister for employment, Michaelia Cash, will introduce legislation “early this year” to amend the Fair Work Act. It would make penalties ten times higher than they are for “employers who deliberately and systematically underpay workers and fail to keep proper records”. Another amendment would make franchisors, such as 7-Eleven, and parent companies liable “where they should … have been aware and could have reasonably taken action to prevent breaches”.

The University of Sydney Business School’s Stephen Clibborn welcomes any strengthening of the Fair Work Act, and is also calling for more funding for community legal centres to help employees pursue stolen wages.

But he says prevention of illegal employer behaviour is equally important, and the government has failed there, by reducing the role of unions. “They’ve prioritised legislation and other measures aimed at reducing the influence of unions. But unions are important in enforcing employment laws.” Jo-anne Schofield, the national secretary of the United Voice union, which represents cleaning, hospitality and care workers, among others, says that too often there is harassment of workers seeking union support, and that legislation needs amending to reinforce workers’ rights to access their union.

But the union movement has been damaged by one of its own, with continuing revelations of the deals that the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association made with large employers such as McDonald’s, Coles and Hungry Jack’s, which created collective agreements that paid wages below the minimum wage. In late November the Greens introduced the Pay Protection Bill, in a bid to amend the Fair Work Act, so that no workplace agreements in future could undermine the wages safety net.

Schofield says it is a huge challenge for her union to organise in high-turnover industries, where “too many people are forced to string together multiple short-term casual jobs”. That challenge will involve working in different languages and working with industry on ethical labour supply chains.

According to Trippas, the growing black economy is attributable to “just the pressure on business”. Before compulsory super, he says, a cafe owner would expect a three-way equal split in costs between wages, food and “other”. But wage costs are now 46%. It was once standard to expect a 10% profit. Now, Trippas says, it is more likely to be 2% to 5%.

Others, including RMIT’s Iain Campbell, see a cultural shift in employer attitudes. “It’s the sense that the employer has the right to do what they want with their business in order to maintain competitiveness … It’s a sense of entitlement. ‘It’s our business, we’ve worked on it, we can do what we like with it, why should we have to pay the minimum wage.’”

Campbell puts it down to a pervasive neoliberalism in both private and public sectors, and dismisses arguments about competitive pressures. “There’s always been competition. It’s the way capitalism operates, based on units of capital. Each employer seeks a cost advantage over competitors. But this is why we have minimum-wage laws … to prevent the destruction of living conditions for the mass of the population.”

Sometimes missteps are attributable to employers’ poor management skills. But Campbell says it’s more than that. “Employers still see themselves as [good] employers even if they’re not paying the minimum wage. ‘He pays me $15 an hour but he gave my parents a free lunch. And he doesn’t yell as loudly as the guy down the street.’ Employer culture has shrunk, in human terms.”

Meanwhile, the federal government has been forced, through gritted teeth it seems, to respond to the public outcry around the behaviour of 7-Eleven and Caltex. In addition to the proposed changes to the Fair Work Act, taskforces are mushrooming. Late last year, the federal government announced plans for a black economy taskforce. There’s also the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce (harnessing information to better protect workers) and Taskforce Cadena (targeting criminal activities associated with overseas workers).

The Fair Work Commission’s highly anticipated review of penalty rates will only be relevant to the employers who currently pay them. For those in the black economy it will be business as usual.

There is, too, a catch-all Senate inquiry into Corporate Avoidance of the Fair Work Act, covering labour-hire practices, wage levels, awards and “legacy issues relating to WorkChoices”, among other issues. The inquiry is due to report in August.

It remains to be seen how seriously the government will respond to these various inquiries and taskforce findings. The plan to increase penalties for companies who “should have been aware” or who “deliberately underpay”, for instance, would appear to leave significant scope for employers to claim ignorance or argue it was a one-off error. Compared to the alacrity with which Centrelink-related infringements (or perceived ones) are pursued, the government’s actions and rhetoric about rogue employers have arguably been minimal. 2017 is shaping up to be a year of reckoning for employment rights.


Tomoe had a hankering to care for animals, and as her burn wounds healed she headed north to work on a farm near Townsville. She fed animals and cleaned the house, under the direction of another young Japanese woman who’d been there longer. Tomoe was not paid – simply fed and housed. She said she didn’t mind about the animal work because she wanted that experience, but cleaning the house was “a little annoying”. That was for about a month.

Back in Sydney, she worked at an inner-city bakery. She set the bread, and made sandwiches and coffee. The pay was $15 an hour, cash. This time, Tomoe asked if she could give her tax file number and pay tax. She was told “it takes time”. She never got a pay slip.

Tomoe was chatted up by a worker at a nearby fish shop, where she sometimes had to make deliveries for the bakery. He invited her out. She was lonely, and she went. She was sexually assaulted.

Her alleged assailant is in jail, on remand, and the case is expected to be heard in the first half of this year.

After the assault, with its attendant police inquiries and time off for Tomoe, the bakery cut Tomoe’s five shifts a week back to two. “She [the owner] was nice before the incident.”

Tomoe turned to her friend Joshua. His family took her in, and urged her to accept the NSW Police offer of counselling. Tomoe refused, preferring to try, she said, to put bad things behind her.

Just before she flew back to Japan, I said I’d noticed a big difference in her over the two years I’d known her. She seemed older and wiser.

She nodded, expressionless. “I learned a lot in my time in Australia.”

* Names have been changed.

Ann Arnold

Ann Arnold is a journalist with ABC Radio National.

February 2017

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