Nicole Hasham, 20 October 2015

The federal government will grant an amnesty to 7-Eleven workers who fell victim to the convenience store’s pay scam while breaching their student visas, so long as they help with investigations into the exploitation.

At a Senate estimates hearing on Monday night, Immigration Department deputy secretary Michael Manthorpe confirmed international students who had come forward to assist the Fair Work Ombudsman’s inquiries would have “no action taken against them”.

Labor Senator Kim Carr asked if this amounted to an amnesty, to which Mr Manthorpe replied: “so long as they are prepared to comply with their visa conditions prospectively, they won’t be cancelled.”

Labor, the Greens, unions and advocates had called for the amnesty, saying workers feared being deported if they came forward to claim mistreatment or seek repayment of lost wages. However the government had refused to provide such support until now.

Mr Manthorpe said the pledge was being communicated to workers through the ombudsman and Allan Fels, chair of a panel reviewing the allegations. It is unclear if the department has given workers a written guarantee that they will not be deported.

A joint investigation by Four Corners and BusinessDay revealed 7-Eleven’s Australian head office had been involved in a major cover-up of the scam, where workers were paid only for half the hours they worked, and often worked more hours than their visa conditions allowed.

Meanwhile, internal government emails tabled at the hearing on Monday night revealed which senior Department of Immigration staff were sent a media release that ultimately forced a visa-checking operation in Melbourne to be aborted. The emails were tabled following a request from Senator Carr.

The media release, which officials later said was poorly worded, said Australian Border Force officials would be “speaking with any individual we cross paths with”, prompting a public backlash so strong the cross-agency operation was cancelled.

The emails showed on Wednesday August 26, two days before Operation Fortitude was due to start, the media release was attached to an email sent to senior department officials Maree Bridger, Mark Jeffries and Guy Boekenstein, as well as Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s chief of staff Steve Ingram. The names of less senior staff were redacted from the email.

The following day, the press release was sent as an attachment to the office of Mr Dutton. Three hours later an employee from his office, whose name was redacted, replied “Ok thanks for letting me know”.

Extracted in full from the Sydney Morning Herald.