By Jackson Stiles
Tosif Varsi, 31, a migrant worker from India, has accused a Domino’s franchise with direct ties to the company’s chief executive of using his precarious visa situation to exploit him.
His claims follow reporting by Fairfax of allegations that Domino’s head office is squeezing its franchisees, who may then mistreat their workers to stay profitable.
Tosif told The New Daily that in 2008 his father spent “all of his retirement money” to send him to Australia to “get a good life”.
After arriving on a student visa, he worked at Pizza Hut (within the 20-hour-per-week limit, he says) until 2016, before accepting a job as a store manager at a Domino’s franchise in Adelaide owned by a friend, who agreed to sponsor Tosif for a subclass 187 visa for permanent residency.
Within weeks, Domino’s head office terminated the franchise agreement with Tosif’s friend, alleging he had underpaid workers. Tosif’s friend denies these claims and continues to fight a legal battle with Domino’s.
The franchise was taken over jointly by Hot Cell Pty Ltd and Triumphant Pizza Pty Ltd. Domino’s chief executive Don Meij is a director of Hot Cell, a search of ASIC’s corporate database revealed.
In a public statement, Meij said he was “disappointed” by the actions of “the very few”. He did not respond personally to an approach from The New Daily, sending comment instead through his media department.
“We have reviewed the circumstances of Mr Varsi’s employment, and are disappointed there was a breakdown in communication and the employment relationship between an employee and a franchisee. This was finalised with the agreement of all parties following a conciliation hearing with the Fair Work Commission,” a Domino’s spokesman said.
After the takeover of the Adelaide store in 2016, Ryan de Vink, an agent of Hot Cell, agreed to continue Tosif’s employment and to sponsor his 186 visa application if he agreed to manage a new store in Whyalla, South Australia.
He was promised an annual wage of $49,000 plus superannuation and bonuses and a rent-free residence, Tosif said.
But between April and September 2016, he was initially paid the equivalent of $43,867.20 a year to manage the Whyalla store and charged $150 a week rent plus electricity costs.
Despite being on a 38-hour-a-week contract, he regularly worked 50-, 60- and even 70-hour weeks without additional pay, he said.
After he lodged a complaint with the Fair Work Ombudsman, Domino’s head office acknowledged he had been underpaid and reimbursed $3,851.62. He insists he was owed more.
De Vink apologised for the underpayment, but said he “totally disagreed” with the “way his visa situation has been presented”.
“I never sponsored him to come to Australia, but was trying to help him because he was already here. I have tried to do the right thing by him, and until this point believed we had agreed on a suitable outcome,” de Vink told The New Daily.
‘The visa system is open to abuse’
In order to employ Tosif instead of an Australian, de Vink—on the advice of Tosif’s migration agent—placed an advertisement in The Advertiser newspaper and on an online job website. He reportedly received multiple applications, but told the Immigration Department that Tosif was the most suitable candidate.
Tosif now believes he was exploited because of his precarious visa status, and “lured” with insincere promises of sponsorship.
De Vink eventually reneged on visa sponsorship in August 2016, and in September he allegedly terminated the manager’s employment.
Tosif initiated unfair dismissal action against de Vink, who disputes he was ever terminated. The matter was settled.
The former store manager now has until February 20 to leave the country. He warned his fellow Indians to avoid the Domino’s franchise.
“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. I’m not trying to be a leader or anything, but someone has to speak out,” he told The New Daily.
“Maybe in another part of Australia, maybe someone is going through the same thing. Maybe an Indian franchise is doing the same thing—because the Indians do this as well.”
Experts have warned of the potential for migrant workers to be abused because of the power imbalance inherent in a relationship between a sponsor employer and a foreign worker.
The New Daily has previously reported on alleged flaws in the 457 visa system. Tosif’s case relates to 187 visas, where employers sponsor workers for permanent, not temporary, residency.
‘Sponsorship is a widespread problem’
Tosif’s case was uncovered by Michael Fraser, a workplace rights activist, who visited around 70 Domino’s stores across the country after receiving tip-offs. His material has contributed to Fairfax’s reporting.
Fraser told The New Daily he developed a suspicion, based on interviews with Domino’s insiders, that franchisees sponsor store managers because it “guarantees them a period of ownership over that manager”.
“Sponsorship is a widespread problem, and I was amazed to hear how many Domino’s franchisees are doing it. We found out that there are at least 30 people sponsored in Domino’s stores around Australia.”
Fraser said Australia’s visa system is “open to abuse”, and that the advertisements used to test if Tosif was the most suitable candidate were known within Domino’s as the “fake ad scam”.
“Both franchisees and employees told us that the ‘fake ad scam’ is commonly used to sponsor workers in place of hiring willing and able Australian residents.”