Adele Ferguson, 1 October 2015

It was September 2014 when consumer advocate Michael Fraser first heard about ozYoYo, a website only known to foreign nationals looking for jobs at stores including 7-Eleven and other household names.

One ad, translated into English, posted by a now ex-7-Eleven franchisee from Sunnybank said: “Now need to night shift workers, to have Tax File Number … at an hourly rate $13/hour, working hours 11:00 pm-7:00am, interested, please call.”

Wage fraud has been going on for years with some employers blatantly advertising an illegal rate.

One worker responded to a recent ad, “My last boss only pay me $8 per hour and would not agree to give me job for $10. I am happy to do job for you anytime but would you please pay me $10 per hour?” Instead of pointing out that $10 an hour was illegal, the 7-Eleven franchisee replied: “Hi Parkul, I would like to meet you. Please give me a call.”

If the fallout of the 7-Eleven wage fraud scandal has taught the nation anything it is that the illegal payment of wages to workers on visas is rampant.

The joint investigation by Four Corners and Fairfax Media revealed that some workers have been paid as little as $5 an hour and most don’t get paid for training. In one case a worker in Brisbane hadn’t been paid for three months and stood outside a 7-Eleven store with a placard saying “This store has not paid me for 3 months. Please Help.”

The new chairman of 7-Eleven, Michael Smith, who has been on the board of the scandal-ridden empire for 16 years, pleads ignorance that until recently he was unaware of the goings on. But he says that he now believes it isn’t just 7-Eleven.

“This has opened my eyes. I think we’re at the beginning of the revelation of something that is a very widespread problem,” he said.  “A week ago I could have walked around these city blocks ignorant, I can now walk around here and say “underpayment, underpayment, underpayment”.

Smith says even his daughter was ripped off by three of her four previous employers.

In the United States a large part of the economy operates on low wages paid to illegal workers. If it was dismantled it would have a massive impact on businesses and the economy.

Over the past month myself and colleague Sarah Danckert have received hundreds of emails relating to worker exploitation at many organisations including Bakers Delight, United Petroleum, Subway, Crust and Nando’s.

We have been inundated with calls to help workers in nail parlours, local restaurants and any small business or franchise that employs foreign workers.

With 1.3 million workers in Australia on visas, equivalent to one in 10 of the workforce, it has wider economic implications. Besides undermining the award system, it is potentially robbing the Australian Taxation Office of hundreds of millions of dollars a year in tax.

It is why there are calls for amnesty, triggered by the expose of worker exploitation.

The Fair Work Ombudsman recently busted an Asian takeaway food shop in Melbourne for underpaying a student worker $12,000. The business operator told Fair Work he thought it was OK to pay a mutually agreed flat rate as the student from Taiwan had posted on a social media site she would work for $12 an hour cash in hand.

Fraser, who visited 60 7-Eleven stores and spoke with 100 staff, said that even after all the negative media and with head office cracking down, he is still seeing daily cases of exploitation and underpayment of employees at 7-Eleven. “Employees are calling me crying and begging for help and franchisees are doing the same,” he said.

Against this backdrop, the mood at 7-Eleven head office hangs heavy as staff grapple with some dramatic changes at the top.

Since head office was contacted in mid-July requesting an interview to appear on Four Corners, all hell has broken loose.

Before then, wage fraud was rampant and head office turned a blind eye. In the words of the 7-Eleven whistleblower “everyone at head office knows about it.  No one likes it, but people want to keep their jobs so they stay quiet,’ he said. “I’ve heard it being joked about at senior levels at meetings.”

When asked why nothing was done about it, the insider’s response was “many franchisees wouldn’t have businesses they could survive in and I really don’t think they [head office] did anything about it because they thought they’d never get caught.”

They did and now they are living through the consequences.

Extracted in full from the Sydney Morning Herald.