The slap that sparked a movement

 

When video of a young woman being violently assaulted at a bubble tea shop went viral last week, outrage rippled across the country.

In the fiery exchange, a young woman is slapped across the face then kicked in the stomach after an argument broke out in the Fun Tea store in Adelaide's Chinatown.

The clash was confronting - but it is the story behind the video that activists hope will keep the conversation going and push for change to Australia's workplace laws.

In the vision, an argument can be heard taking place in Mandarin about the woman's wages.

In the video, a young woman is slapped across the face then kicked in the stomach after an argument broke out. Picture: Reddit
In the video, a young woman is slapped across the face then kicked in the stomach after an argument broke out. Picture: Reddit

Though the owners of the business denied the incident was linked to a wage dispute, the worker and her colleague are now being represented by the Working Women's Centre of SA (WWCSA).

The organisation has made claims of serious and systemic underpayment, alleging the women earned between $10 and $12 an hour as casual employees when the legal minimum rate in a restaurant is $25.51.

The workers are aged 20 and 22 and had both been employed for nearly six months, the group said.

Since video of the altercation was posted on social media, the plight of the women has shone a light on a culture of exploitation in parts of Australia.

In the days after the story broke, rallies were held outside the Gouger Street shop and surrounds calling out alleged wage theft in the Chinatown district.

Organisers said many people employed in the district were paid less than $15 per hour, and some received an hourly rate as low as $5.

Jackie Chen, who founded the SA Labour Hub, says Chinatown is the centre of the wage theft endemic. Picture: Tricia Watkinson
Jackie Chen, who founded the SA Labour Hub, says Chinatown is the centre of the wage theft endemic. Picture: Tricia Watkinson

Jackie Chen, who founded the SA Labour Info Hub, said underpayment affected international students disproportionately.

"Most of them are not fluent in English and they have working hour restrictions; they can only work 40 hours a fortnight," he told NCA NewsWire.

"When you find a job and it's only paying $10 an hour, you're kind of forced to work more hours … it's not enough for their living expenses.

"Their boss will say, 'If you report me to the fair work ombudsman, I will report you.'"

Mr Chen said his organisation had been collecting information about businesses from former and current employees, and had made a blacklist of 150 employers that had underpaid staff.

He said Chinatown was "the centre of the endemic" and wanted to see stronger protections put in place for international students, including harsher penalties for those who breached workplace law.

"The government should punish them more seriously because some bosses don't really care," he said.

Rallies were held in Chinatown after video of the alleged assault at the Fun Tea shop went viral. Picture: Tricia Watkinson
Rallies were held in Chinatown after video of the alleged assault at the Fun Tea shop went viral. Picture: Tricia Watkinson

After the release of the Fun Tea video, police arrested a 39-year-old Glen Osmond man and charged him with assault.

He was granted police bail and will appear in Adelaide Magistrates Court in May.

Meanwhile, the video of the attack has now been viewed more than 100,000 times, and the backlash against the business has been swift.

As well as the rallies, the site was the target of an attempted break-in, and fake company notices have been pinned to its door that defend the alleged wage theft.

In an interview with popular Chinese YouTuber SydneyDaddy, Fun Tea director Jason Duan, who is not the man charged, said he had received death threats.

"I am very scared," Mr Duan said.

"What has happened has caused a lot of problems. The roller door on the shop has been damaged and I just don't know what will happen next time."

The owner of the Fun Tea shop, Jason Duan, appeared in a YouTube interview with YouTuber Sydney Daddy. Picture: YouTube
The owner of the Fun Tea shop, Jason Duan, appeared in a YouTube interview with YouTuber Sydney Daddy. Picture: YouTube

For activists such as Tom Gilchrist, who was involved in organising a rally separate to Mr Chen's, the issue of underpayment is nothing new.

Mr Gilchrist said the prolific impact of the Fun Tea incident was partly because the issue resonated with many other young people who had similar experiences.

"No one deserves to have wages stolen from them and no one deserves to have that sort of violent reaction to standing up for their rights," he said.

"There is particular things about this case but I think so many young people do have an experience of not feeling confident to stand up to their bosses and not being paid properly."

Tom Gilchrist, far right, says many young people have experienced issues with underpayment. Picture: Dean Martin
Tom Gilchrist, far right, says many young people have experienced issues with underpayment. Picture: Dean Martin

Mr Gilchrist, who is involved with SA Education Activism Network, called for workers to unite against exploitation.

"Over the last few decades we've seen a real decline in things like unionism … oftentimes workers don't have all these organisations trying to stand up for their rights," he said.

"We really need to rebuild workplace organising so that people can have the confidence to do what the woman at Fun Tea did, to stand up to their bosses and know that there will be people there backing them up."

Activists are calling for international students to be better protected in the workplace.
Activists are calling for international students to be better protected in the workplace.

A report published by the McKell Institute in 2019 estimated one in five South Australian workers experienced "direct ordinary wage theft" and, collectively, more than $500 million was stolen annually.

Zana Bytheway, executive director of employment rights legal centre JobWatch, said reports of underpayment in the workplace were on the rise.

The community legal service, which works in several states, received 2246 underpayment-related calls last year, with 255 of those from workers under the age of 24.

Another 55 were from students or those on bridging or refugee visas.

But Ms Bytheway suspects the true number of affected workers is much higher.

"These groups are the least likely to complain," she said.

"We need them to be aware that they are entitled to all the working conditions that Australian residents are entitled to.

"Once they're in Australia, the workplace protections are there for them as well."

Jackie Chen has linked the plight of some international students to modern slavery, and has called for change. Picture: Tricia Watkinson
Jackie Chen has linked the plight of some international students to modern slavery, and has called for change. Picture: Tricia Watkinson

Mr Chen, who works directly with international students who fall victim to wage theft, says the government, universities and the community must commit to change.

He urged Australians to keep the conversation going until foreign students were better protected.

"International students come to Australia to study, they pay tens of thousands of dollars for university," he said.

"When they want you to find a part-time job to support their expenses, which is approved by the Australian government, but all they can find is $10 an hour.

"This must be changed."

Originally published as The slap that sparked a movement


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