Epic Tea outlet on campus underpaying staff, investigation finds

Employees are working without payslips, superannuation and written contracts

International students working at the Epic Tea outlet on campus have told Honi Soit they are being paid between $12 to $14 per hour, and are working without payslips, superannuation and written contracts.

Employees indicated they were being paid an hourly rate of $12 during a training period which lasted as long as a week in some cases, with an hourly rate of $14 thereafter. Those earnings were paid in cash on a weekly basis, without any superannuation contributions, at the outlet located in the Jane Foss Russell Plaza.

In one case, a student who chose to remain anonymous for fear of victimisation, told Honi they were being paid a higher rate of $18 only because they had a connection to Epic Tea’s parent company, Eternal Passion.

These rates fall well under the national minimum wage and the casual hourly rate of $26.76 mandated by the Fast Food Industry Award for employees aged 21 years and over.

Epic Tea has also withheld pay slips from its employees, according to surveyed staff, who said they had been kept in the dark over their superannuation entitlements. Failing to provide pay slips may result in a fine, according to Fair Work guidelines.

None of the students Honi spoke to were able to point to any employment contract with Epic Tea or Eternal Passion.

Epic Tea and its predecessor, Easyway, have been tenants of the University of Sydney Union (USU) since 2009. The store underwent a change in management with the franchisor taking over responsibility of the store late last year, according to company extracts held by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.

In that same period,  Easyway rebranded to Epic Tea nationally, becoming one of several beverage brands managed by multinational parent company, Eternal Passion, who also own dessert chain, Meet Fresh.

A previous Honi investigation in 2017 uncovered employees were being paid as little as $10 per hour. The USU subsequently probed the shop, finding that Easyway were paying a lawful wage because of a loophole in certain hospitality awards which allows staff to be paid 70% of the award rate for training periods of up to three months.

The employees which Honi spoke to all expressed sentiments of anxiety and apathy. Some referred to a fear of immediate victimisation and chose not to participate in Honi’s survey. One employee suggested there was a wider underpayment problem on campus, with other campus outlets,  including those in the Wentworth Building food court allegedly also engaging in underpayment.

USU president Connor Wherrett told Honi the USU takes its legal responsibilities “extremely seriously” and has already begun investigating Epic Tea.

“At Board last week we confirmed that we will be working with other campus bodies, including the Uni, to better inform students about this. Underpayment equals theft, pure and simple. Education is the first step.” Just last week, the USU distributed a note reminding Epic Tea and other tenants of their legal obligations.

Although underpayment is illegal, it may allow international students to evade certain conditions of their student visas, including the restriction of 40 hours of work per fortnight. However, this risks a breach of visa conditions and deportation.

Reporting underpayment can risk admitting to a breach of visa conditions, leaving international students particularly vulnerable to wage theft and workplace exploitation.

One international student at USyd shared her experience working at Chatime two years ago with Honi, mentioning that she was paid $10 an hour during a trial which lasted an entire month, and $13 an hour thereafter.   

“We were cheap labour, being exploited and terribly underpaid.”

“The boss was also an international student at Usyd. She hired employees who just arrived in Australia and who did not understand their working rights.”

The student then complained to Chatime’s head office but received no response.

Epic Tea’s underpayment of staff comes after restauranteur George Calombaris withheld $7.8 million from workers at his restaurants and a national Fairfax investigation into Chatime revealed wage theft of millions of dollars from international student employees.

Epic Tea will not be continuing as a USU tenant after this year for unrelated reasons, but campus is set to welcome a new tea outlet in semester two. Chinese brand Cha Li is expected to set up alongside the Co-Op bookshop.

Honi invited comment from Eternal Passion, but received no response at the time of publication.

Not sure how much you’re supposed to be paid? Use the Pay Calculator here or call the Fair Work Ombudsman on 13 13 94 (For interpreters, call the Telephone and Interpreting Service first on 131 450).

Are you being underpaid on campus? Make an anonymous complaint to the Fair Work Ombudsman.

The SRC also offers a free legal service available to all University of Sydney students. You can read its employment law fact sheet here.

Got an anonymous tip about an employer on campus? Send us a tip here. We’ll keep it confidential.