Chef blackmailed into eight months of unpaid work with promise of Australian visa


EXCLUSIVE: Karnvir Singh says he is owed more than $25,000 by the Gold Coast employer who threatened to revoke his sponsorship after he questioned being made to work for free.

When 37-year-old Karnvir Singh was offered a full-time job as a chef at a Gold Coast Indian restaurant he couldn’t believe his luck.

“It looks like an angel had come for me … I was thinking this is a miracle that happened in my life,” Mr Singh told SBS News.

“After some time, it was totally a different story.”

The father-of-one migrated from Punjab in India to Australia in 2007 to study hospitality management.

“Cooking is my passion. Sometimes I cook at home because I can’t stop myself,” he said.

He married in 2014 and he and his wife, who also moved to Australia, had a daughter three years ago.  

But after working at the restaurant for more than three years, his life was turned upside down when his employer requested that he work without pay. He said his boss initially promised him it would only be for a few weeks.

 Karnvir Singh migrated from India to become a chef.
Karnvir Singh migrated from India to become a chef.

“When I asked him to pay me, he started blackmailing me. [He said] ‘I can’t pay you right now, maybe next, next week, next week’,” he said,  

“I had my [visa] application with the Immigration Department from his restaurant, he said if I am going to ask him more and more about wages he is going to withdraw my [sponsorship] nomination,” he said.

Mr Singh was working on a 457 visa and his employer promised to sponsor him for permanent residency under the Employer Nomination Scheme (subclass 186 visa). 

But it didn't happen. 

Carina Garland, assistant secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council said those on temporary visas are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, especially when their employer is their sponsor.

“There’s a whole range of cases where employers use the power they have in Australia over those on temporary work visas to steal their wages,” she said.

The Fair Work Ombudsman told SBS News in a statement that in 2017-18 they assisted 2,158 workers in workplace disputes involving a visa holder. That equates to 20 per cent of the total number of disputes dealt with.

There’s a whole range of cases where employers use the power they have over those on temporary work visas to steal their wages.

- Carina Garland, Victorian Trades Hall Council

“In 2017-18, the FWO secured $4.8 million in penalties for decisions involving visa holders, and we assisted in the recovery of over $2 million in underpayments for visa holders. In the first half of 2018-19, the FWO has already recovered $1.47 million for visa holders,” a spokeswoman said.

Eventually, Mr Singh left his job and has since lodged a complaint about his former employer to the Fair Work Ombudsman to try and recover $25,000 in wages he says he is owed. The Ombudsman is in the initial stages of assessing his case.

In 2017-18, the FWO secured $4.8 million in penalties for decisions involving visa holders
In 2017-18, the FWO secured $4.8 million in penalties for decisions involving visa holders.

During the eight months he worked without pay, he said he his wife was forced to work longer hours as a cleaner and he needed to borrow money from friends to put food on the table.

“I couldn’t survive anymore, it was like for me enough is enough,” he said.

Migrants exploiting migrants

Ms Garland said one of the issues facing workers on temporary visas is a fear their visa may be in jeopardy if they seek assistance.

“People don’t speak up because they don’t have faith that the system will support them, or they are afraid that they will be sent back home when all they are doing is speaking up about being mistreated at work,” she said.

In Mr Singh’s case, he says he is deeply embarrassed the boss he trusted was from his own country.

“It is very shameful to say that it is done by my own countryman. It is very embarrassing,” he said.

Ms Garland said it wasn’t uncommon for exploitation to come from members of the same migrant community.

“Unfortunately the discrimination of migrant workers is not discriminatory, and is practised by people from a number of different backgrounds, including migrant backgrounds themselves,” she said.

The Fair Work Ombudsman said those seeking assistance shouldn’t be afraid of losing their visas.

“Visa holders should be aware that, in line with an agreement with the Department of Home Affairs, they can seek assistance from the Fair Work Ombudsman without fear of their visa being cancelled,” the spokeswoman from the Fair Work Ombudsman said.

Mr Singh’s visa application was cancelled by his former employer when he left, but he is now on a bridging visa while he challenges the visa decision in the courts, separately to his Fair Work claim against his former employer.

He said he has chosen to speak up to educate other migrants about the risks of exploitation in the workplace. He also has big hopes for his future in Australia.

“Maybe in the next couple of years I will own my own restaurant,” he said. “I want to serve the Australian people”.

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