A Wellington restaurant worker says she was required to pay her boss a $10,000 “deposit” so she could keep her job while she went away on holiday in China.
The deposit was not the only payment request from Yican Liao’s boss, who allegedly asked for tens of thousands of dollars so he had funds to pay the woman’s wages.
Liao worked at Rams Restaurant from 2016 but was fired over Chinese messaging app WeChat in 2020 after mistakenly turning off an air-conditioning unit.
Now, three years on, she has been awarded nearly $60,000 in wage arrears from employer WSL International Limited, a company trading as the popular Chinese eatery Rams Restaurant. It has since changed owners.
Liao took WSL to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA), saying she was unfairly dismissed by sole director and restaurant shareholder Wenshuo “Jack” Li.
She also claimed she was owed unpaid wages and the $10,000 “deposit” that was never returned when she came back from her holiday in 2017.
While the ERA ruled in her favour in regards to her wage arrears, it found she had taken her case for unfair dismissal outside the 90-day period, as she was dismissed in June 2020 but didn’t bring her case until May 2022. If it had been within that timeframe she would have been successful.
Her claim against the “deposit” paid to her boss was considered to be a premium payment by the authority - however, because it was made overseas, it was outside the jurisdiction of the Wages Protection Act 1983 so the ERA couldn’t rule in her favour.
Initially working part-time, Liao moved to full-time employment as a manager when her studies concluded, working on an open work visa. She told the ERA all of her salary, including tax, was paid by her.
The decision said Liao would pay money into bank accounts provided by Li, sometimes turning to family and friends to help financially.
“Based on Ms Liao’s evidence I am satisfied she was required by Mr Li to make payments that were used to fund her wages while she was employed by WSL,” the decision said.
When she went on holiday to China three months after starting her job, Li asked her to pay a $10,000 “deposit” so she could keep her job. He told her the money, which was paid into a Chinese bank account by her mother, would be returned to her at a later date.
But according to Liao, when she returned from her holiday Li regularly asked for money to pay her wages, providing various account numbers and accepting cash.
She claimed she was not allowed to use sick leave or annual holiday leave and told the ERA she was threatened by her boss to make sure she wouldn’t, including threats to cancel her visa.
During the Covid-19 pandemic Liao received the wage subsidy, but the ERA said Li “made it clear the subsidy was to be paid back to him once she returned to work”, proven by evidence at the hearing.
In June 2020 Liao was fired.
Evidence relied on by the ERA in making its decision included witness accounts, some of which are the subject of permanent name suppression, as well as Inland Revenue records, videos of her employer handling cash and bank statements.
Further evidence included messages on WeChat that supported Liao’s statement and showed Li to be an “irritable boss”, using inappropriate and abusive language towards Liao and other workers.
“The messages also show Mr Li purported to or threatened to dismiss Ms Liao on more than one occasion and there was more than one instance where Mr Li threatened to take action in relation to her immigration status,” said ERA member Sarah Kennedy-Martin in her decision.
Other messages also made Liao scared, including descriptions of Li allegedly engaging in illegal activities involving firearms. She also claimed to have been asked to sell drugs and cigarettes, and saw firearms on the premises.
“Ms Liao said she became very stressed to the point she says her mental stress increased to her being on the verge of collapse. She wanted to leave and go home but her family and friends encouraged her to persevere and get her full-time salary and her ‘deposit’ back even if she did not continue with the job,” said Kennedy-Martin.
Li and WSL did not lodge a statement in reply, evidence or submissions in response to Liao’s case and the ERA said it was satisfied the business owner was aware of proceedings continuing without him.
NZME contacted Rams Restaurant but was told the business had been sold “two to three years ago” and contact details could not be offered for Li to provide further comment.
They said they were not aware of the recent ERA decision.
“The Companies Office Register currently records that the Registrar intends to remove the company under s 318 of the Companies Act 1993 and invites objections to be lodged before 19 December 2023,” the ERA said.
Hazel Osborne is an Open Justice reporter for NZME and is based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Wellington. She joined the Open Justice team at the beginning of 2022, previously working in Whakatāne as a court and crime reporter in the Eastern Bay of Plenty.