The ombudsman investigated five outlets in Queensland’s south-east and seven in Canberra, along with 33 others across the NSW Hunter, Central Coast, North Coast and Coffs Harbour regions in a co-ordinated series of audits that began at the end of 2015.
It claimed to have uncovered wage underpayments at 37 of those businesses, while 29 had breached the rules on payslips and record-keeping.
As a result, it ordered a collective $746,203 be backpaid to a total of 397 employees. Additionally, nine infringement notices were a combined $17,850 were issues, along with 15 formal warnings and six compliance notices.
Six of the businesses faced legal action after the FWO alleged more serious breaches.
In those proceedings, the federal court issued combined penalties of $136,250 after records were falsified to hide the underpayment of young Korean employees in Brisbane and Ballina, while a Newcastle business operator was fined $36,000 for underpaying four other migrant workers.
Ombudsman Sandra Parker questioned whether consumers should visit food businesses that offer cheap meals if it comes at the expense of employee wages.
“Although everybody loves cheap sushi, perhaps we should ask ourselves – is what I’m paying enough to cover workers’ minimum wages and entitlements?” she asked.
“While the Fair Work Ombudsman never excuses employers who underpay their workers, we know that labour represents a significant cost in the food industry.
“Our activity identified that sushi eateries often employ vulnerable workers including young workers, migrant visa holders and those from non-English-speaking backgrounds.”
Ms Parker said the FWO has a particular focus on ensuring migrant employees are correctly paid, suggesting they “may not be fully aware of their workplace rights or are reluctant to complain”.