Foreign worker was treated ‘like a slave’ in Sydney cafe. Now he’s fighting for owed A$152,000

‘They said if I didn’t do the hours they would send me home. They threatened to have me kicked out of the country’

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 12:56pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 12:56pm

For Muhammad* a temporary visa to work as a cook in Australia turned from a great opportunity into a nightmare of low wages, 55 to 70-hour work weeks and constant fear that he would lose his sponsorship and be deported.

Now being helped by Legal Aid in New South Wales, Muhammad is taking his former employer – a cafe owner in Sydney – to court to claim almost A$152,000 (US$114,000) in back wages, entitlements and superannuation that he says should have been paid.

Attempts at mediation have failed and he now faces the prospect of a court battle.

His story comes as a comprehensive survey of 4,322 people on temporary migrant visas, by three universities in Sydney, has painted a grim picture of systemic exploitation of visitors to Australia, with some cases detailing criminal behaviour by employers such as confiscating passports or demanding part of wages back in return for keeping a job.

Muhammad came to Australia in 2006 from the Indian subcontinent to study marketing and then a masters in accounting.

In 2011 he returned to Australia under a 457 visa to work as a chef.

The first restaurant in Darling Harbour that sponsored him was good to work for, he said. But then he transferred to another establishment and his problems began. He was initially employed to work 38 hours a week on a wage of $52,000 a year.

But it soon became apparent his employers expected many more hours from him. The cafe/restaurant opened at 7am and closed at 9pm. Often he was expected to work split shifts or without a lunch break. He found himself expected to work six, even seven days a week.

“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.”

That would have put an end to his plan to seek permanent residency and join his brother and sister in Australia.

Muhammad said the other chef, from Nepal, did 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 claimed his employers used to demand money back, again with the threat of withdrawing the sponsorship. Pay days were ad hoc and he could go three weeks without being paid.

With the long hours he found it almost impossible to look for an alternative job that would sponsor him.

“I just tried to keep calm as I knew I would eventually get residency,” he said.

Now that he had his permanent status, Muhammad is prepared to take on his former employer. But for many people on temporary visas, their ability to even seek redress is limited.

* Muhammad is a pseudonym.