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Stood down en masse, more than 100 Nepali workers from a Sydney laundry still awaiting support

South Pacific Laundry is accused of standing down temporary visa holders amid coronavirus crisis, a claim the company denies. Source: Screenshot from video in company website

Staff at South Pacific Laundry say they were stood down because they didn’t qualify for the federal government’s JobKeeper payment, a claim the company denies.

More than 100 temporary visa holders from Nepal are facing an uncertain future after being stood down en masse by a Sydney laundry company due to the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the Construction Forestry Mining Manufacturing and Energy Union’s (CFMEU) Manufacturing Division, Melbourne-headquartered South Pacific Laundry (SPL) emailed 183 of their 236 Sydney employees saying that they would be out of work effective 28 April.

The employees were stood down “without pay, for a period yet to be determined, in accordance with the Fair Work Act 2009,” the email stated.

SBS understands that in the email, SPL had also promised to “remain in contact” with the impacted employees saying they will ensure any changes to their “employment circumstances are communicated”, including the time frame in which they hoped the employees may be able to return to work.

Temporary visa holders don't qualify for JobKeeper payment

However, a month later and with the easing of coronavirus restrictions across the country, the employees and the union say they’re still to hear from the company about when they will be able to go back to work.

On condition of anonymity, a staff member from Nepal, currently on a temporary visa, says he tried to remain calm after being stood down in the wake of the coronavirus but as days passed his worries began to increase.

“They’ve told us nothing. They said, there’s no job now so you’ll have to stand down,” he told SBS Nepali.

“They asked us whether we wanted to come back after the business reopens but we haven’t been called back yet.”

He says he and his colleagues are helping each other deal with the situation as best they can.

“I got paid some annual leave, so it helped me personally. But many who didn’t have leave or money are now really struggling. I’m getting calls from colleagues who need financial help.”

South Pacific Laundry's Victoria centre
South Pacific Laundry's Victoria centre

According to Alison Rudman, a senior organizer for the NSW district of the CFMEU's Manufacturing division, the stood down laundry workers are in an “impossible situation”, facing “closed borders, no work and no pay.”

“Over 100 of those we understand to be Nepali workers and the remaining from several different communities,” she said.

“What’s happening to them is devastating, many of them have been here quite a long time and they’ve set up their lives here and are contributing to our community, they’re raising their families here.”

Future unknown

With facilities across the country and clients including Queensland Government Health, Meriton and Marriott, SPL’s website says it services more than 3,000 customers daily.

Its CEO Andrew Robson says that since March 1, their sales volumes to the hospitality market has reduced to “a fraction of normal trade.

“In addition to our hospitality customers, we continue to provide essential laundry services to our healthcare and residential aged care customers, which is particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This combination of work, although much reduced, has enabled us to continue some operations and to utilise a proportion of our workforce,” Mr Robson told SBS.

A hazard sign outside an aged care centre
A hazard sign warning drivers of elderly members crossing the street is seen in Kensington, Melbourne.

However, impacted staff and the union disagree and have accused SPL of not being transparent with them. 

They maintain that the workers on a temporary visa, including international students, were stood down because they were ineligible for the federal government’s JobKeeper payment.

This is the reason, the Nepali worker believes, they’re not able to get back to work.

“Coronavirus has impacted everyone across the world, it hasn’t discriminated. But we’ve been discriminated because we’re on a temporary visa,” he says.

He also questions the use of paying taxes if he’s not receiving any benefit of being a taxpayer during the time of crisis.

“Why isn’t the government supporting us despite our contribution to the country.”

'Achieving balance'

South Pacific Laundry says the welfare of its employees is their first consideration in every decision that impacts them.

Andrew Robson also denies that the company is discriminating against temporary visa holders.

“We have continued to utilise a mix of employees who are both eligible for JobKeeper and who hold a temporary visa and subsequently do not qualify for JobKeeper.

“Our focus today remains on achieving a balance that ensures we are able to navigate the economic environment but are also in a position to progressively recommence customer services and return our workforce as the pandemic subsides,” he said in a statement to SBS Nepali.

Recently arrived overseas travellers arrive at the Crown Promenade Hotel in Melbourne, Sunday, March 29, 2020.
Recently arrived overseas travellers arrive at the Crown Promenade Hotel in Melbourne, Sunday, March 29, 2020.

With coronavirus restrictions gradually easing across the country, the company says it hopes to be close to commencing the slow return of employees from stand down.

Despite this assurance, the situation remains dire for many says the CFMEU.

“We’ve had a couple more people picking up ad-hoc shifts but unfortunately the vast majority of the 183 people are still not back at work and they’re still wondering what the future holds,” says Alison Rudman.

We’re talking about people who genuinely don’t know, in a couple of weeks time, how they’re going to put food on the table.

“They’re not certain how they’re going to get through this. We’re talking about people who have kids, who have rents to pay, we’re talking about people who genuinely don’t know, in a couple of weeks time, how they’re going to put food on the table.”

According to the federal government, more than 910,000 Australian businesses have registered for the Jobkeeper scheme.

With the number of workers receiving support through the scheme revised down to 3.5 million workers, the Labor opposition has urged the Morrison government to extend the scheme to casual workers and temporary visa holders.

But the government has so far refused to make changes to the scheme after a reporting error reduced the scheme’s funding cost from the previous estimate of $130 billion.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison reacts during House of Representatives Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison reacts during the Jobkeeper debate at Parliament House in Canberra, April 8, 2020. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

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