The operators of two Vietnamese restaurants in Adelaide are facing legal action after allegedly underpaying workers more than $400,000.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has alleged the operators of Mr Viet restaurants off Rundle Mall and in Chinatown, in Adelaide’s CBD, underpaid 36 workers between January 2018 and September 2021.

The ombudsman said most of the alleged victims were Vietnamese international students aged under 25, including five workers who were 18 to 20 at the time.

Husband and wife operators Viet Quoc Mai and Huong Le will now face proceedings in the Federal Court. 

Viet Quoc Mai and Huong Le allegedly subjected workers to a “strike” system.(ABC News: Marco Catalano)

The ombudsman alleged the pair subjected workers to a “strike” system as punishment for making errors, which included deducting worker’s wages for costs associated with leaving a fridge door open over the weekend, breaking a door or incorrectly charging a customer.

One worker allegedly had six “strikes” and as punishment, was forced to buy food and beverages for the operators and any staff working at the time.

Alleged individual employee underpayments ranged from $74 to more than $58,000 and 15 staff were underpaid more than $10,000. 

Fair Work Ombudsman Anna Booth alleged Viet Quoc Mai knew he was underpaying staff and that the alleged breaches amounted to “serious contraventions” of the Fair Work Act.

Ombudsman alleges ‘systematic pattern of conduct’

Ms Booth said the alleged underpayments were uncovered during surprise inspections of Adelaide restaurants, cafes and fast-food outlets in April 2021.

She alleged that Viet Quoc Mai instructed his workers to not reveal information to the Fair Work Ombudsman after their visit to the business.

“Because we allege that this was a part of a systematic pattern of conduct … it will attract 10 times the maximum penalty that world ordinarily apply,” Ms Booth said.

Anna Booth says the alleged breaches amounted to “serious contraventions” of the Fair Work Act.(Supplied: Fair Work Ombudsman)

If upheld, Viet Quoc Mai and Huong Le each face maximum penalties of up to $133,200 per serious contravention and up to $13,320 for each other contravention. 

The ombudsman also alleged the business failed to provide payslips to the workers, and knowingly made false or misleading records and provided them to workers.

They allege the business provided Fair Work inspectors almost 100 payslips, some of which showed workers had been paid higher rates and had worked less hours when that had not happened. 

The ombudsman said it was seeking a court order that would require Viet Quoc Mai to address the underpayments, many of which allegedly still were unpaid two years after they were owed. 

A directions hearing date in the Federal Court in Adelaide is yet to be fixed.

Ms Booth said if workers were concerned they were being underpaid, they should contact the ombudsman.

“We have an infoline that can be called, and we will give the advice to an employee about what their situation is. We’ll also give advice to an employer,” Ms Booth said. 

She said the ombudsman had an interpreter service and translated information on their website for non-English speakers.