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Worker Win: Tamil supermarket worker recovers $80,000 in stolen wages

2020 ended on a high for migrant worker Anil* who successfully clawed back $80,0000 in stolen wages.    

Anil’s boss had been stealing his wages for four years. Anil worked at a supermarket chain regularly doing long twelve hour shifts, sometimes seven days a week. He was paid a flat rate with no overtime. His boss never gave him a contract with his hours and wages set out. Anil didn’t ask for this information when he started the job because he didn’t know he was entitled to it as an employee in Australia. His boss was also illegally forging his payslips, claiming he was only working 70 hours a fortnight when he worked 140-150 hours. To add to Anil’s struggles, he was a refugee on a temporary protection visa and had spent one and a half years locked up by the Government in detention upon arrival in Australia from Sri Lanka. For many people seeking asylum who’ve spent years in detention - it’s a sudden and desperate race to find employment in a new community upon being freed. Anil was caught in a system that was stacked against him from his visa to his employment conditions. But Anil fought back.

Anil first heard about the Migrant Workers Centre on SBS Tamil radio and got in touch. He says, “I was not sure I was underpaid until I spoke to a Migrant Workers Centre organiser. I always knew I work more hours than the payslip says but I didn't know that was illegal. After [finding out] I was underpaid, and the amount I was underpaid... I was completely shocked.” Anil’s experience of discovering he had his wages stolen shows the importance of assistance for migrant workers in language.

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At first, Anil says, “I was very afraid of my boss. I don't want to confront him”. But he realised he could empower himself as a worker. He joined the United Workers Union and with his union and the Centre behind him, he stood up to his boss and demanded his wages back. At first his employer didn’t respond, and then rejected our claim - saying they had paid the full wages in cash. 

Anil persisted. The employer came back and made an offer of $15,000. This was no small sum, but knowing it was a fraction of what he was owed, Anil still didn’t back down and continued to fight for what he was owed. The case culminated when Anil decided he would take his employer to court to fight for his stolen wages. His employer realised Anil wasn’t going to back down and a few weeks before the hearing, finally offered a settlement of $80,000,  $50,000 of which was paid right away and the rest in installments over six months. Reflecting on this experience, Anil says, “this case had gone for months. Once I even thought I would lose. But I am happy for this outcome. I got what I deserve.”

There can be a lot of barriers to migrant workers seeking justice through the legal system. Anil was fortunate because his whole claim dated back four years - two years under the six year cut off. Fear of visa repercussions, language barriers and lack of familiarity with the legal system are also common disincentives. While the Migrant Workers Centre helped bridge some of these gaps for Anil, at the end of the day it was his courage as a unionised worker standing up to his employer that led to this huge win. Anil’s advice to others in similar situations is, “Don’t be afraid to stand up your rights like I did. It is your money and you should have it. Fear doesn’t help you in any way.”

While Anil’s win shows justice can be won, there’s still a lot of work to do to stamp out the systemic exploitation of migrant workers. Four of Anil’s coworkers also came forwards with wage theft claims - three on temporary visas and one permanent resident. These workers are still owed wages but the employer has evaded paying back the stolen money by liquidating and starting a new business.

*Name has been changed

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