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'Modern slavery' claim over bubble tea shop underpayment

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An alleged assault of a Gouger Street shop worker after she complained about being underpaid constitutes “modern slavery” under international labour definitions, a parliamentary committee has been told.

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Flinders University Law School Associate Professor Marinella Marmo told Parliament’s Wage Theft Select Committee hearing this morning that the incident matched six out of 11 modern slavery attributes, as defined by international labour organisation standards.

Marmo, who is an expert on human rights and is currently researching contemporary forms of modern slavery in South Australia, said it included incidents of wage theft, threats and violence, sexual and gender abuse, racism, poor housing conditions or overt or covert forms of silencing, such as isolation, in the workplace or in domestic settings.

Her analysis of the footage capturing the incident, which went viral over social media over the past week, found it aligned to several modern slavery definitions, prompting her to call on the State Government to capitalise on public attention and toughen the state’s laws.

“I’ve been considering whether this was just a case of wage theft or whether (it was) a more severe form of exploitation akin to slavery that was taking place,” she told the committee.

“I used the 11 indicators as produced by the international labour organisations and out of these 11 indicators, I can count at least six indicators as applicable to this case.”

The six indicators include abuse of vulnerability, deception, intimidation and threats, withholding wages, abusing working conditions, and physical violence.

Marmo said she was still considering whether the incident aligned to a further two indicators of modern slavery – isolation as a form of silencing and excessive overtime.

Footage posted to social media ten days ago, which has since captured widespread interest across Australia and China, shows a 20-year-old Rose Park woman being confronted by a man inside the Fun Tea bubble tea shop in Gouger Street after she asked about unpaid wages.

The incident has sparked protests and prompted both SafeWork SA and the Fair Work Ombudsman to launch investigations.

Marmo said South Australia had “gone backwards” on eliminating wage theft in the workplace since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have encountered many stories of international students who are fully aware they are underpaid, but are not just underpaid – exploited also in many other ways – but they declared themselves content given the lack of options,” she said.

“We regret the lack of clear social, cultural (and) legal messages from the South Australian Government.

“We urge the South Australian Government to move quickly in this area now there is more than ever a captive audience in the South Australian public.”

Marmo said Parliament needed to set up a dedicated inquiry into all forms of modern slavery – not just those linked to commercial labour exploitation.

“It’s clear that South Australia is at a turning point here – there is a need for a cultural shift,” she said.

“From what Victoria’s been doing with their Wage Theft Act and in Queensland as well, that this state also has to take a step forwards and cannot wait for the federal level.

“Taking steps at state level in terms of law helps with a cultural shift.”

Marmo said she was worried that the Gouger Street incident had been framed as “a problem of some cultural groups”.

“We tend to forget far too easily that major companies owned by Australians, having major shareholders in Australia, are also caught again and again and again,” she said.

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