A former Indian High Commissioner has been ordered to pay more than $130,000 compensation to a domestic worker he paid just $9 a day.
In the Federal Court on Friday, Navdeep Suri Singh was found to have breached four sections of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) when he employed Indian national Seema Shergill between April 2015 and May 2016, in relation to ordinary hours of work, minimum wages, payment of wages, breaks, overtime, penalty rates, and annual leave.
The court was told Ms Shergill worked seven days a week for about 17.5 hours a day, was paid every three to four months, and was never given leave. She performed domestic tasks including cooking, cleaning, gardening and laundry at Mr Suri’s Canberra home, where she also lived.
“I had to work even when Mr Suri was on holidays or interstate. When he and his wife were away, instead of my usual chores, Mr Suri or his wife usually would ask me to make large batches of samosas and freeze them, or to clean the silverware. They would call and check up on me, to ensure that I was working,” Ms Shergill said.
She said Ms Suri’s wife was “very demanding”.
“She often nagged me to work harder, and said to me things such as I was earning too much money, and that I was earning more than if I was in India,” she said.
Ms Shergill was initially paid $7.80 a day, then $9 per day from July 2015 after she complained. She received a total of $3400 for her 13 months of work.
After continued pressure to sign a false employment declaration and threats of deportation, Ms Shergill fled, with no belongings, in May 2016.
She slept on the streets until making her way to the Fair Work Ombudsman, who arranged help from the Salvation Army.
Justice Raper said Ms Shergill’s employment “involved significant breaches of Australian law”.
“Her employment conditions bore no resemblance to what one would expect under Australian law – her passport was taken from her, she worked seven days a week, was never permitted to take leave and was only allowed outside the house for brief periods a day when looking after Mr Suri’s dog,” she said.
The court was told Ms Shergill was working with the Suris in Egypt in 2014, when she was asked to sign English language documents, which she did not understand. The documents sought that she be granted a visa to “join the High Commission of India in Canberra as a Staff Member”. Her title would be “service staff” with the primary functions of “reception and entertainment of guests”.
“However, the evidence revealed that Ms Shergill was not employed by the High Commission nor performed any duties for the Commission. Ms Shergill was not asked any questions for the purpose of the completion of the Notification Form,” Justice Raper said.
She said the evidence also showed Ms Shergill never lived at the address listed on the paperwork, and instead lived exclusively at Mr Suri’s residence, where she only ever took direction from Mr Suri or his wife, and her duties were not those of reception or entertainment, but “of a domestic worker in a residential household”.
Justice Raper also found Mr Suri was ineligible to claim foreign state immunity under the Foreign States Immunities Act 1985 (Cth), because Ms Shergill did not work for the High Commission, nor diplomatic immunity under Diplomatic Privileges and Immunities Act 1967 (Cth), as the engagement of a domestic worker was not an official function of his position.
Justice Raper ordered Mr Suri to pay $136,276.62 plus interest, to Ms Shergill within 60 days.