Exploited migrant worker awarded nearly $100k in compensation

A migrant worker has been awarded almost $100,000 in compensation.
A migrant worker has been awarded almost $100,000 in compensation. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Tom Taylor RNZ

A migrant worker exploited by his former boss for more than eight years has been awarded almost $100,000 for arrears in pay. 

Devinder Mann owned multiple pizza stores in Auckland and forced his staff to work long hours of overtime without compensation. 

He has now been ordered by the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) to pay up - but has not done so yet. 

Deepak Dhiman arrived in New Zealand from India in 2012 on a student work visa. 

He was 17 years old and unaware of New Zealand labour laws, and after trying to secure employment at multiple establishments, he finally accepted a job at a pizza store where his friend already worked. 

The job was to become a living hell for the next eight years. 

In a decision released on 6 October, the ERA ordered that Dhiman's former boss Mann pay almost $70,000 in wage arrears and $28,000 in arrears of holiday pay, plus interest on both amounts. 

It was a hard-fought battle, but one migrant rights advocate Sunny Sehgal said was far from over. 

"The migrant has actually got justice in relation to this case," Sehgal said. 

"But again, the sad news is that there are many, many, many out there who have worked for this employer since 2011 under the same situation who have been exploited by this employer. No other migrants should be going under the same hardship as my client has gone through." 

In 2012, New Zealand minimum wage was $13.50. 

Dhiman received the equivalent of $8 an hour, working 20 hours a week and only getting paid for 10. And for his first week of on-the-job training, he wasn't paid a cent. 

"I wasn't sure because I was new and nobody told me this is paid training," Dhiman said. 

"Nobody guided me or anything because I didn't have any friends because I was new." 

In 2014, Dhiman was issued a two-year work visa attached to Mann's company Naanak (now in liquidation) as an assistant manager at a pizza store in Flat Bush. 

The contract, which Dhiman said he never received or even signed, required him to work 35-40 hours a week for a salary of $29,000. But the actual hours he worked were far longer than those stipulated. 

"I got a contract of 35 hours, then he told me you have to work 55 hours, and you will only get paid for 35 hours. 

"You can't take any sick leave. If you are sick, just stay in the shop - you can't go home. 

"You can't take any public holiday. 

"If you want a holiday within the week, then you have to come on your day off. 

"There's no annual leave; after two years he was only giving just three weeks off." 

According to the ERA, a former co-worker said he recalled Dhiman regularly working 50-55 hours per week. 

Dhiman's annual leave was extremely limited while working for Mann. 

In 2018, he took just his second period of leave, returning to India for his own wedding, which had been arranged by his parents. 

But even in granting the leave Dhiman was owed, Mann became threatening. 

"He told me, okay, okay, yeah, that's fine, you can go. 

"But make sure you don't take more days. 

"If you want one more week, then you don't have to come back, you have to just stay there." 

The couple spending so little time together meant Dhiman's wife had a long struggle ahead in obtaining a visa. 

She only joined Dhiman in New Zealand earlier this year after four years of marriage. 

In 2016, Dhiman was granted a three-year essential work visa as a store manager for the pizza store in Flat Bush. 

He said he continued to work 50-57 hours a week and continued to be paid for less. 

In November 2019, Mann sold the pizza store to another employee. 

Dhiman said he was forced to continue working there as manager, fearing his visa would be cancelled by Mann if he refused to do so. 

But in 2020, after eight years of being underpaid and exploited, Dhiman had finally had enough and resigned. 

He took his case to migrant rights advocate Sehgal, who fought on his behalf. 

At this point, Mann approached Dhiman's brother, threatening his family with repercussions.

When the case was picked up by the ERA, Mann denied involvement in the breaches of minimum entitlements but conceded that some payments in respect of public holidays were owed. 

At an investigation meeting on 6 July, Mann did not provide a written statement or any evidence. 

When the ERA told Mann he would be under oath, he abruptly left, saying that the entire process was a "set up". 

When contacted by RNZ, Mann said he would be laying corruption charges against Dhiman's advocates. 

But when asked about underpaying his staff, Mann hung up the phone. 

Dhiman was now working as a pizza store manager under a different employer in Huntly. 

Although he was yet to receive the money owed to him, he said he was happy that justice would be served. 

The ERA ordered Mann to pay Dhiman within 28 days of the determination. 

The payment awarded included $69,981 in arrears of wages, $28,153.14 in arrears of holiday pay, and interest on the two amounts.