A café owner in Albury is facing court over allegations he made two of his Indian cooks pay him thousands of dollars to keep their jobs and stay in Australia.
The Fair Work Ombudsman has initiated proceedings in the Federal Court in Sydney, in its latest effort to crack down on 457 visa routs.
Fares Ghazale and his company Rubee Enterprises have been accused of a raft of workplace law breaches, including underpaying five employees more than $87,000.
Ghazale has also been accused of coercing two Indian cooks into withdrawing cash from an ATM to repay him large amounts of their wage and threatening to withdraw his support for their visa sponsorship if they refused.
The Fair Work Ombudsman alleges one employee was required to repay Ghazale more than $11,000 over a period of several months in lump sums ranging from $550 to $940 a week.
The second cook allegedly was made to repay more than $10,000 cash through weekly repayments ranging from $200 to $700.
When the employee complained he was being exploited, Ghazale allegedly threatened to withdraw his support for a pending 457-visa application and threatened to “contact Immigration”.
When the worker told Ghazale he could no longer surrender his wages, Ghazale allegedly responded by shouting at him and demanding $500 cash each week for the visa. It is also alleged Ghazale took hold of the worker by the collar, an incident that was later reported to Albury police.
On top of numerous underpayments, the employment watchdog also alleges Rubee Enterprises provided false time-and-wages records to Fair Work inspectors and failed to issue payslips to employees.
Ghazale faces maximum penalties of up to $10,200 per contravention and Rubee Enterprises faces maximum penalties of up to $51,000 per contravention.
The matter will return to the Federal Court on July 31.
Emma Starkey, senior associate employment lawyer at Maurice Blackburn, told SmartCompany it is unlawful to coerce employees to engage in a particular action.
“For example, to force employees to pay back wages they have legitimately earned can be unlawful,” says Starkey.
While she says there are some lawful deductions employers can make from wages, Starkey says there would need to be an express and lawful basis to do so.
“It’s very much a case by case basis and that would depend on contractual obligations and award entitlements,” she says.
Starkey also reminds employers it is illegal to threaten or punish employees regarding their treatment at work, including threatening to demote or sack them.
Starkey says the Fair Work Ombudsman is increasingly paying attention to protecting vulnerable workers, such as those on working visas.
“I think that is important because often these workers can’t stand up for themselves or don’t understand the laws and the entitlements they have. It is important these matters are investigated and pursued,” she adds.
SmartCompany was unable to contact Rubee Enterprises.