It’s Worse Than We Think
Two young mothers are crushed by the casual cruelty of their exploiter. A soon-to-be father was refused leave to attend his spouse in labour. A young mother was told to send her baby to India so she could work more unpaid hours. A husband was asked for $35,000 for his wife to keep her job. The exploiter outfoxes MBIE and state justice. It is left to the citizens of Tokoroa to organise and demand justice for the victims.
My previous article on the exploiter distressed many readers. OneUnion have filed serious exploitation charges against Challenge petrol station owners Harjit Singh and his son Udamjit Singh from Tokoroa. These two exploiters now owe $130,000 just in unpaid wages for three employees. There will be more. The OneUnion team went to Tokoroa last Friday to meet the workers and talk to locals. The reality of the exploitation is even worse than we thought.
My team spoke to the spouse of ER, one of the petrol station workers we are representing. We thought we had correlated all the case details when we originally filed the workers’ cases. When Sarah and ER chatted to our team, we realised it was worse. Sarah says when the boss went to India for three months, ER was required to work 15 hours every day from opening to closing, for the entire time. Not a single day off. That’s over 100 hours a week for 13 weeks. When Harjit returned, ER got his first day off in three months. Within four hours the boss called him back to work. Sarah through tears said on Friday “ER works so hard and the boss couldn’t even hack four hours, when he makes ER work daily stretches of 15 hours.”
The couple told the boss they were expecting a child and arranged for two weeks parental leave. On the day of Sarah going into labour she phoned ER to leave and take her to the hospital. For hours ER was crying on the phone to Harjit, begging to send someone to relieve him. He wouldn’t.
We asked why ER didn’t just leave. ER said he was frightened because Harjit said if he did, ER would lose his visa. Sarah says “this blackmail was the worst part.” It took three hours before the boss arrived. Sarah was in hospital for three days. On the fourth day, Harjit rescinded ER’s leave and demanded he to return to work. Through tears Sarah said “they took away the most important and magical moments of our life.”
Exploiter Sacks Young Father And Outfoxes ERA
Shortly after this outrage, ER’s employment was terminated after he asked for his holiday pay and to have his unpaid hours reduced so he could help his family. Yes, you read that right. He was summarily dismissed. ER didn’t get the visa support he was promised. He didn’t even get the holiday pay he was owed. The exploiter then deliberately dragged out the legal process for nearly two years.
The workers tell us Harjit was coming into the petrol station every day, whilst at the same time telling the Mediation Service he was bedridden, and couldn’t even take a conference call. His lawyers were so embarrassed at his many bald-faced lies they quit in succession. Harjit went through five lawyers.
When the Employment Relations Authority finally instructed Harjit to attend an investigation meeting, he transferred ownership of the station to his son, three days before the meeting. Then he liquidated his company. The ERA have washed their hands of it and say it’s now our responsibility to deal with the liquidator. The liquidator tells us to naff off.
The Human Damage: The Community Rallies
As a result of the termination, ER lost his visa sponsorship which made him liable for deportation. As new parents, and ER newly unemployed, the couple had to borrow thousands of dollars to apply for a partnership visa. Sarah said she is traumatised and has become consumed by this injustice. She thinks about it every day.
On Friday, the OneUnion team went to the local supermarket to distribute leaflets and to assess the mood of the locals about Harjit and Udamjit Singh’s exploitation. Many of them had read my Daily Blog article online and were delighted people were stepping up for these workers. Everyone knew about the father and son’s exploitation. Samples of the comments were: “God, we really hope you get justice we will do everything we can to help”; three-quarters of people said they would attend a protest: “Let us know when the protest will be. We will be there.”
Others read the flyer in their cars and then came back to express their condolences, and to let Sarah know they would tell everyone they knew. The local Cosmopolitan Club have been tremendous. We picked up over ten locals who volunteered for any campaign.
Our team got to meet Sarah’s mum. Her mother, a kuia in the finest sense, couldn’t understand how the law and “the system have failed.” My team said she was in a quiet fury and almost lost for words. She did say “I knew how horrible this all was, because I have never seen grown men like my son-in-law cry the way he had been. This really hit us in the heart.”
And just when you think you know what a crushed heart feels like, it gets worse.
Young Mother Told to Send Baby to India
We met another young mother on Friday. I’ll call her KT. She also worked for this father-and-son criminal racket. She wasn’t one of the workers we were representing. But after reading my Daily Blog article she drove from Tauranga on Friday with her partner to see us.
Two years ago, both her and her husband needed to have jobs, hoping that with their employer’s support one of them could get permanent residency. Harjit, the father, agreed to employ KT. Unfortunately, her husband could only find a job in Tauranga. As such they had to live in different towns.
Although her contract was for 40 hours a week, and KT had a newly born baby, Harjit insisted she work up to 60 hours a week. The additional hours were unpaid. This was very hard on KT and her daughter. Harjit found a diary in which KT was recording her hours of work. He confiscated it. She started a new diary. He confiscated that too. KT had no choice but to endure this to keep her job.
For a while KT’s mother came to visit from India and was able to look after her granddaughter. Business owners near the Challenge station said they remember watching “the poor girl work all day.” KT was working 12-hour shifts. The locals said they “could see she was being abused.” When we told the local neighbours the truth on Friday they were outraged. One of the locals said “she is such a sweet girl who obviously broke her back all day as her baby was at home with his grandma.”
After KT’s mother’s visitor permit ended, she had to return to India. KT asked Harjit to reduce her hours to just the 40 hours in her employment agreement, so she could spend time with her baby. He said no. He said it wasn’t his problem. If she wanted his support for her visa, the baby had to go to India.
Many migrants want so badly to build a better life for them and their family. Both parents have to work long hours and endure exploitive conditions. They have to endure this abuse in the hope of getting a permanent visa with their employer’s support.
I have come across several parents who have had to send their children away. KT’s baby is now in India. It is heart wrenching. Migrants tell me of only knowing their babies by Skype. They miss their babies’ first steps, their first words, their tears. The parents cry a lot.
The Brutality of Evil
One day out of the blue, KT’s employment ends. Udamjit the son, phones KT to say his father has sold the petrol station to him. This was of course the manoeuvre to avoid the ERA. As such, Udamjit was now the boss and said she was not to come to work anymore. She was dismissed from that very moment. KT never returned to the station and has never received her final wage. Nor her holiday pay.
KT’s husband was furious and went to Harjit asking about her visa support. Harjit replied the couple would now have to pay him $35,000 to support the visa for KT. The husband told him where to go.
The couple now live in Tauranga on one income. They went to a lawyer. They are now $5,700 poorer and their lawyer got them nothing. With the COVID 19 pandemic they have even had his income dramatically reduced, and can’t afford to be reunited with their child. KT is owed $32,000. Of course, we will represent them for free.
The OneUnion team say KT and her husband are a lovely couple. The couple are still in shock that someone could do this to them. The couple say Harjit and Udamjit have destroyed their lives. One of our team was a young volunteer and was in tears. On their way back to Auckland she texted that KT is “the loveliest girl, quiet and shy but with a beautiful nature”.
Both couples and their friends were incredibly grateful for our support. But why should workers have to be grateful? They have to thank people they have never met, because they can’t get simple justice we used to all take for granted?
Prime Minister Needs to Step Up
Our employment laws are a joke. They protect bosses. Our institutions are failing. How does it take 18 months to even get a hearing in the Employment Relations Authority? How is it that MBIE inspectors tell bosses the name of employees who reported them on their confidential exploiter hotline? Our commercial laws are corrupt. How does an exploiter get to transfer his business to another exploiter, and then get away with his crime with the press of a button? It’s clear there is one law for bosses and one for workers. A worker would already be in prison if they did a fraction of what this boss did.
Blatant exploitation is becoming a normal state. Migrants are terrified of being deported if they speak up for themselves. That’s because it’s true. Immigration officers turn up on their doorsteps with deportation papers within 14 days after an exploiter reports them. Some of our bureaucracy is bloated, and we have lazy politicians at the wheel.
After this election the new prime minister needs keep Andrew Little as Workplace Minister. She needs to also appoint another senior MP as the Immigration Minister, who has the seniority and the political will to ensure the exploiters are firmly held to account and the exploited get prompt justice. The only suitable person I can think of is David Parker.
What to do?
New Zealanders have to step up. Communities have to own this abuse in their neighbourhoods.
Here is my immediate action list:
- I will write to Challenge NZ to demand they investigate Harjit and Udamjit Singh’s actions. If either of them are guilty (they are), Challenge must rescind their contract.
- I will formally request MBIE Labour Inspectorate, IRD and Immigration NZ to investigate these two men.
- We will launch a petition in Tokoroa to get 1000 citizens to sign up to a campaign to end exploitation in Tokoroa, and to hold these two exploiters to account.
- We will organise a public rally in Tokoroa in a month’s time. Our demand is that Harjit and Udamjit Singh to apologise to these workers and put things right for them. Otherwise they should leave town.
- Will you help?
If you know anything about Harjit Singh or his son Udamjit Singh, or could help in some way, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’d like to get our UTU bus to Tokoroa. Would you make a small koha to help get us there? Please go here.
Matt McCarten is the National Director of One Union and an UTU Trustee