by Zhefeng Wang
“Waitresses and dishwashers wanted!” After leaving Burwood Station and walking south down Burwood Street, Chinese university student Mali Shen, of Guangdong Province, found there was a recruitment poster in the window of almost every restaurant. Mali was looking for a part-time job
“I was told that maybe there were some working opportunities on Burwood Street but I was surprised to see so many recruitment notices,” Mali says with an excited smile.
Mali, 23, is in Sydney studying for her Master’s Degree of Communication at the University of Technology Sydney. Although she has been in Sydney for only two months, Mali was eager to find part-time work.
“Sydney is so expensive,” she says. “And I don’t want to be a burden on my mom and dad.”
Acknowledging that English is not her first language, Mali decided to look a basic position, such as waitress in a Chinese restaurant.
However, although she visited all the Chinese restaurants with recruitment posters in their windows, she got the same response from them all.
“They let me leave my contact information and told me I would be contacted if there was a need. It seems that they were not so eager to find new staff,” she says. Mali felt a bit frustrated.
Cheng Sun is the owner of a Chinese restaurant on Burwood Street. He has kept a recruitment poster in the window since he bought the restaurant some years ago. He says the staff turnover in Chinese restaurants is rapid so he has to keep that poster to attract new faces. He also keeps the details of all applicants in case he has an unexpected need for new staff.
“On the other hand,” he says,” the poster could also push the existing staff to work harder; they know they will be replaced easily.”
Actually, the rapid staff turnover in Chinese restaurants is not news. The employers have adapted to this, as indicated by the numerous recruitment posters. And many Chinese students, who regard a job in a Chinese restaurant as a means to accumulate working experience, endure the lower payment which is below the minimum age in Australia.
“I know, but what can I do? Call the police?” says Chinese student Hong Fang. “I don’t want to let myself be the exposed rafter which is the first to rot.” Hong’s words are a famous proverb in China to warn people to keep a low profile.
Hong, 21, is a medical undergraduate at Sydney University and has been in Sydney for three years. “Yes, $8 to $10dollars per hour is the standard level of our wage, which is only about half of the Australia’s minimum wage ($15.51 per hour). But it has been accepted by students who look for jobs,” she says. “To do or not to do, it depends on you. You could choose not to work at a Chinese restaurant or accept the game rule here.”
Hong comes from Fujian province. Her petite figure and doll face make her look much younger than she really is, although she is an experienced waitress.
Hong noticed Mali come into the restaurant where Hong worked. “I gave her a notebook and a pen to write down her information. Her nervous expression reminded me of my first year in Sydney. But I cannot help her, she has to help herself,” Hong says.
That evening, Mali received a call from a Chinese restaurant asking her to work on a trial basis the following Wednesday. Mali was excited.
On Wednesday, Mali braided her hair into a ponytail and went to the restaurant. There she met Charlie. He was born in Shanghai and went to California when he was 13 and lived there for seven years before he came to Sydney two years ago.
Charlie was Mali’s instructor. After learning the restaurant’s procedures and regulations, Mali started working. She had to wipe the tables and remember the customers’ orders, however she was slow and served the wrong dishes to the tables.
When the customers complained loudly, Charlie happened to be out of the restaurant, and Mali could not handle the situation. Then the employer came and placated the customers quickly by offering them free drinks. When she passed Mali, she glanced at her but left without any other word.
Mali didn’t pass the trial and did not get paid. Unpaid trial working is customary in most Chinese restaurants. Mali learned this through experience.
“That’s common,” Charlie told Mali. “I have worked here for four months and seen many one-time trial workers.” Then Charlie told Mali that the employer always asked new people to come to do trial working but seldom employed anyone.
“She is too selective so always feels unsatisfied with the old staff but cannot find someone better.” Charlie told Mali he started working when he was only 15. And he has worked for eight restaurants in United States and Australia. “Don’t be upset. Any veteran like me starts as a beginner.”
Just two days after the first trial, Mali got another call from a Chinese restaurant and was asked to work there the next day.
The restaurant was the one in which Hong had worked. As Hong found another job with higher wage at a western café and resigned, the employer needed to recruit another waitress.
This time, Mali passed her trial.
One week later, Mali got her wage for the first week in cash – $65 for eight hours. Mali was happy. She made money, more or less.
Many Chinese students share the similar working experiences in Chinese restaurants. And the low wage has existed here for more than 20 years. No change. No improvement.