Adele Ferguson, Sarah Danckert, Mikaela Day, 21 September 2015

Class action law firm Maurice Blackburn has written to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull urging him to offer amnesty to 7-Eleven workers affected by the company’s wages scandal, saying it is a national scandal that threatens to become an international scandal.

Maurice Blackburn principal Josh Bornstein called on Mr Turnbull to intervene to help the 4000 mostly international students the law firm believes are victims of wage exploitation, some of whom he says are earning as little as $5 an hour.

“We respectively request that you give this matter your urgent attention and actively assist the 7-Eleven workers to recover what is owed to them,” Mr Bornstein said in his letter to Mr Turnbull.

He said the panel headed by Allan Fels “will not and cannot work properly” unless the federal government decisively intervenes and grants amnesty in respect of any 7-Eleven employee who has breached the conditions of his or her visa.

“We are forwarding a copy of this correspondence to the Opposition Leader, The Honourable Bill Shorten, as we believe that a bipartisan approach is required in these circumstances.”

Maurice Blackburn on Monday confirmed its intention to provide pro bono legal advice for current and former 7-Eleven workers who wish to recover wages and other entitlements via the panel set up by 7-Eleven and chaired by former ACCC chairman Professor Fels.

7-Eleven has been in damage control in the weeks since a joint investigation by Fairfax Media and Four Corners revealed widespread underpayment of staff across its network of 620 stores.

Along with setting up the Fels panel to review wage claims, 7-Eleven has been forced to increase the level of financial support it provides to franchisees and offer refunds of franchise fees to disgruntled franchisees after the media investigation revealed 138 of the 620 stores made $300,000 or less in income in 2015, which would make it difficult for them to pay full freight wages.

The company is now also reviewing its franchise model after a backlash from franchisees.

Maurice Blackburn principal Giri Sivaraman said while the independent panel aimed to do the right thing, there was a risk that workers would miss out again because many are on student or other visas and feared being deported.

“They don’t trust the company and are concerned they will be reported for working more than 20 hours a week, when in fact they were often coerced into doing this,” Mr Sivaraman said.

“Without a visa amnesty, the panel that has been set up to fix the problem will be paralysed. From the 7-Eleven workers I have spoken to, it’s clear workers live in fear. They have been very loyal and now some are being intimidated about wanting to recover underpayment of wages.

Pranay Alawala, a former 7–Eleven worker who appeared on Four Corners and is being represented by Maurice Blackburn, said: “I believe I am owed more than $30,000. I am concerned that it will take a long time to get this money. I have spoken to the panel. I have asked many questions and the panel is not providing any answers to my questions about how things will work. I’m not trusting the panel at the moment.

“To other students please come forward to Morris Blackburn, they will do everything for free and they will do all the calculations,” Mr Alawala said.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection has previously told Fairfax Media it was actively considering an amnesty for 7-Eleven workers seeking to make wage claims.

However, two weeks ago the then-employment minister Eric Abetz said the government would use its discretionary powers on a case by case basis. Newly-named Employment Minister Michaelia Cash has yet to respond to inquiries.

A spokeswoman for the company said: “Whether 7-Eleven has a position on a visa amnesty or not, the most important thing we can do is let Professor Allan Fels’ independent panel get on with its work of accepting and validating claims of staff underpaid by franchisees – and making good as Professor Fels directs us to.”

Professor Fels has pledged to not “dob” in student workers who have breached their visa conditions to immigration. The highly regarded former competition tsar has also called for a visa amnesty for 7-Eleven workers.

Mr Sivaraman said workers will need to provide copies of rosters, timesheets and bank statements to prove what hours they worked and what they were actually paid.

“The panel’s powers do not extend to being able to examine documents from 7-Eleven’s head office, and we believe this kind of documentation could be the missing vital parts of the puzzle,” Mr Sivaraman said.

Business and consumer relationship advocate Michael Fraser, who has spent two years working for free to help 7-Eleven workers, said he believed tens of thousands of workers have been exploited at 7-Eleven’s stores.

“Pranay is here feeling safe and I encourage everybody else, any student, to come forward. Even if you’ve got concerns about your visa you can talk to the lawyers about your concerns, they are not going to tell anyone and they are going to make sure your best interests are represented,” Mr Fraser said.

“Hopefully we can get you the representation that you need, that the panel does not offer. People need independent advice before approaching the panel, to ensure their best interests are looked after,” Mr Fraser added.

Extracted in full from the Sydney Morning Herald.