Latika Bourke, 28 September 2015

Reprieves for underpaid 7-Eleven workers who breached the terms of their international student visas will be assessed case by case, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said.

Lawyers acting pro bono for 7-Eleven workers condemned the government’s response as appalling and said it would guarantee most of the exploited workers — Indian, Pakistani and Chinese students  — would remain too scared to come forward. Some of the workers have claimed they were threatened with deportation if they complained of being underpaid.

The head of an independent panel set up to deal with claims of underpayment, Allan Fels, also called on the government to go further in offering visa reprieves.

Mr Dutton signalled students would be let off  if they complied with the Fair Work Ombudsman and promised not to breach their working conditions, which restrict them to working a maximum of 20 hours a week, in future.

The government’s partial reprieve comes after law firm Maurice Blackburn and Labor leader Bill Shorten wrote to Malcolm Turnbull urging him to grant a widespread amnesty to workers exploited by 7-Eleven franchisees, as one of his first acts as Prime Minister.

On Monday, a spokesman for  Mr Dutton said a blanket reprieve was not necessary, but leniency could be granted on a case-by-case basis.

“The Department of Immigration has ample discretion to take the full range of factors that have impacted upon these people into account in any dealings with them,” the spokesman said.

Mr Dutton’s office said his department would provide a waiver to exploited people who complied with the Ombudsman’s inquiry and were found to have breached their visa, providing they promised to comply with their working conditions in future.

“Those who’ve been exploited and are assisting the Fair Work Ombudsman investigate allegations of underpayment will not face cancellation of their visas as long as they agree to comply with their visa conditions in the future.”

Josh Bornstein from law firm Maurice Blackburn said the government’s response was appalling.

“Minister Dutton is saying to these vulnerable students: ‘Trust the Immigration Department to do the right thing.’ Such a statement from government merely serves to create further uncertainty and will in fact deter people from coming forward,” he said.

“The minister’s statement guarantees that many 7-Eleven employees will not come forward to seek the substantial sums of back pay owed to them. Many employees are owed over $20,000,” he said.

7-Eleven has established a two-person independent panel, led by Professor Fels and has promised to “make good” on compensating employees underpaid by franchisees.

Mr Bornstein said the minister appeared confused by agreeing to exempt only workers who reported to the Fair Work Ombudsman  and not the independent panel.

“The FWO doesn’t have the resources to efficiently deal with 4000 employees’ back-pay claims,” he said.

“As far as I’m aware, the FWO is not currently involved in assisting employees seeking back pay from the independent panel headed by Allan Fels.”

Professor Fels has also requested the government grant a reprieve to any employees who bring forward wage abuse claims.

“We do not condone non-compliance with visa conditions, but wage abuse should not be tolerated under any circumstances,” he said.

“Many current and past 7-Eleven employees have been reluctant to report wage abuse because of the fear, whether real or imagined, that they will not be permitted to continue to stay in Australia because of non-compliance with visa restrictions.

“If these fears could be allayed by the government, it would greatly assist the panel’s work,” he said in a statement.

Professor Fels welcomed the government’s comments on Monday but said they needed to go further.

“It’s welcome that the government has recognised the need to provide assurance to the many potential claimants,” he said.

“But it needs to go further with a clearer, fuller statement that would provide greater assurance.”

The panel is preparing to contact 7-Eleven’s 6000 employees as well as former employees.

Already 280 people have come forward with claims of underpayment.  7-Eleven will honour the claims of anyone found to have been underpaid.

A worker claiming underpayment will have to provide evidence that meets a test of “reasonableness”.  Their visa status will be irrelevant to their claim and their identity will be kept anonymous.

The panel was established because of a joint Fairfax Media and Four Corners investigation that found up to 4000 workers in the 7-Eleven chain had been underpaid. The chain has 620 stores.

The investigation was told thousands of international-student employees were encouraged to breach their visa conditions and work beyond their 20-hour-a-week limit while receiving reduced hourly wages.

Extracted in full from the Sydney Morning Herald.