A café in Sydney has been treating foreign workers as “slaves” and refusing to pay them for months, according to a report by the Guardian.
The media outlet interviewed a cook in Australia whom they simply called “Muhammad” (it’s a pseudonym) and who arrived from the “Indian subcontinent.” Muhammad came to Australia in 2006 to study marketing and getting a masters degree. In 2011, he returned to Australia, this time under a 457 visa, with the high hopes of working as a chef in Sydney.
However, his happy dream soon turned into a nightmare when he was forced to work 55 to 77-hour weeks for extremely low wages and in fear that he would lose his sponsorship and sent back to his country.
He first went to work for a Darling Harbor restaurant that sponsored him, which was good to work for, Muhammad said. He was later transferred to another café and that was when his problems began.
At first, Muhammad was hired to work for 38 hours a week for $52,000 a year. However, very soon, he realized his employer wanted him to work a lot more. The restaurant he worked at opened at 7 o’clock in the morning and closed at 9 o’clock in the night. He was often told to work split shifts and the work was so hectic, he sometimes had to forego his lunch break. He was also forced to work six and even seven days a week. In fact, Muhammad said another chef, who was from Nepal, was forced to do even longer hours.
“If I was sick, they would require me to make up the hours,” he said. “I had three days off sick and had to make them up.”
Muhammad also accused his employers of threatening to withdraw his sponsorship if he did not return his hard-earned money back to them.
“I was like a slave,” he said. “They said if I didn’t do the hours they would send me home. They threatened to have me kicked out of the country.”
Muhammad said if that had happened he would have lost his chance to seek permanent residency in Australia and would not have been able to join his brother and sister there.
He also said there were no fixed paydays and he would often go three weeks without getting his pay. It was impossible for Muhammad to look for another job that would sponsor him during the few hours he would have left of the day.
Fortunately, Muhammad was able to get his permanent status and is now suing his employer with Legal Aid in New South Wales to claim 152,000 in wages and entitlements, which he said the cafe has yet to pay him.
However, many people who are in Australia via temporary work visas cannot even seek redress.
In June of this year, a Sydney cleaning firm, Group Property Services (GPS) was penalized by the Australian federal court for abusing vulnerable foreign workers as “slaves,” not paying them for months and not providing them with food, medical treatment or basic furniture.
Most of these workers had limited English language skills and were unaware of Australia’s labor laws. An Italian student, who asked for outstanding wages were told to “kiss my ar**,” by one of the employers while a Columbian student was threatened with deportation. The company also established a fake labor hire firm through which it would engage its workforce. Workers were forced to work as “contractors,” which helped the company avoid its obligations to the employees.
The firm was ordered to pay back $223,244 to 49 exploited employees who were working for GPS between 2011 and 2013 and the former owner-operator of the company was fined a further $74,300.
In 2015, an owner of an Indian restaurant in Sydney had to pay $186,000 in back-wages to his illiterate cook who was trafficked to Australia and was forced into slave labor for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. The man also did not speak English, lived in the restaurant’s storeroom, took baths in the kitchen using buckets of hot water and got only one day off on Christmas.
He worked in the restaurant for 16 months until he mustered enough courage to go to the police and report the abuse.
There is a growing international focus on the issue of slave labor in Australia and in the supply chains making products for the Australian market. Approximately, 4,300 people are currently held in slavery or slave-like conditions in the country, according to Global Slavery Index. Many of these are women who are forced into sex industry, but there are also other migrants on temporary visas who are exploited in the food, cleaning and construction industry.
Australia’s Labor Party earlier this year pledged to enact labor legislations that prevent slavery in the country and its supply chains and to establish an anti-slave labor commission if it wins in the elections.
Banner / Thumbnail : REUTERS, Sergio Moraes