EXCLUSIVE: A NSW restaurant chain is under investigation for paying staff as little as $9 cash an hour, less than half the national minimum wage.
Aged between 18 and 23, former workers from Tokyo Ramen's Macquarie Centre restaurant claim they were underpaid, were not given payslips, were not taxed and received no superannuation.
Macquarie's Tokyo Ramen is part of a franchise founded by Hasegawa & Ye International, which also founded the Tokyo Sushi franchise.
The office of the Fair Work Ombudsman has confirmed the business is under investigation. Hasegawa & Ye International is the franchisor for 14 Tokyo Sushi and four Tokyo Ramen restaurants across Sydney and the Central Coast.
“The Fair Work Ombudsman’s operational activities relating to this business are ongoing,” a spokeswoman said.
Former Tokyo Ramen Macquarie staff member Catherine* was promised $12 as a training wage but received only $9 cash an hour in her first payment.
She said she took the job because she was 'desparate'. "I did feel powerless. And just extremely frustrated."
"When I did get paid, the guy who [organised it] wasn't there so I felt like I couldn't really talk to anyone," she said.
If the owner gets in trouble he might start asking questions and then we might get in trouble
Former manager Tania Priskila said she was promoted to a managerial position and given responsibility for running the restaurant but was still paid just $14 cash an hour.
"I felt like me running the shop should have been a hell of a lot more expensive for them," Ms Priskila said.
"Everything that I did for them was definitely worth [more than] 14 bucks an hour," she said.
Ms Priskila remained at the restaurant for three years out of loyalty to the other staff.
"I liked working there because of the people that I worked there with . . . I didn't want to be the one to dob it in because, you know, it was more like a family at the time," Ms Priskila said.
Tokyo Sushi dissociated themselves from Tokyo Ramen. Lulu Xu, who oversees multiple Tokyo Sushi stores, claimed the two chains are completely separate despite the fact they share a website.
Ms Xu stated that Tokyo Sushi pays above the minimum wage, which is $18.29.
However, Tokyo Sushi Macquarie franchisee Jason Chuoi said: “To be honest we [start at] $13.”
“We trying to [change] . . . We trying to keep [it] like by law. It should be. I mean the minimum pay yeah like $18 something that . . . we trying to at least $15, $17, something like that,” he said.
Mr Chuoi pays his staff via cheque, with tax and with superannuation.
Tokyo Ramen Macquarie supervisor Bill Ragkousis refused to reveal how much he or other staff in the store were paid when approached by Central News.
"If the owner gets in trouble he might start asking questions and then we might get in trouble . . . I don’t want to risk it right now,” Mr Ragkousis said.
Fellow supervisor Kyota Miyauchi called the CentralNews investigation into the exploitation of the restaurant’s workers “an inconvenience".
Tokyo Ramen Director Kiyoshi Hasegawa denied workers were being paid under the minimum wage, claiming the company pays according to the NSW award.
This was disputed by hospitality union United Voice, which called the restaurant’s actions illegal wage theft.
“[We] will not stand for employers taking advantage of the vulnerability of workers,” a United Voice spokeswoman said.
A Fair Work Ombudsman investigation in recent years found systemic wage theft from 7-Eleven workers which led to the company paying compensation of more than $110 million.
While 7-Eleven's head office was not held responsible for the conduct of its franchisees, it volunteered to repay workers what they were owed in back pay.
In response to the scandal, the Federal Government's proposed Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Vulnerable Workers Bill) 2017, if passed, will increase maximum civil penalties and hold companies responsible where they knew or ought reasonably to have known of the contraventions of their franchisees.
Staff at Tokyo Ramen's Hornsby restaurant are also paid below minimum wage, with current employee Kentaro* paid $16.90 per hour.
"I'm still getting paid in cash but then they told me that they'll pay online. But I don't know when," he said.
Another Tokyo Ramen Macquarie former staff member Ed* was initially paid $12 an hour, which he knew was illegal.
"Yeah, of course, I know but then almost all Japanese restaurants [are] doing that same thing. Yeah, even Chinese or Korean [restaurants] do cash payments," Ed said.
"So I was like it's illegal but then, yeah, it's normal," he said.
Current employees at the Tokyo Ramen Macquarie restaurant were instructed not to speak with Central News by senior staff members.
*Name has been changed