Brisbane cafe fined $180K for exploiting foreign worker

The owners of a Coffee Club cafe in Brisbane has been fined over $180,000 after unlawfully pressuring a foreign worker to pay back $18,000 of his wages.

In a claim brought by the Fair Work Ombudsman, the Federal Circuit Court found the former owner of the Nundah Coffee Club, Saandeep Chokhani, threatened to have the worker’s 457 skilled worker visa cancelled if he refused to hand back his pay.

Judge Michael Jarrett fined Chokhani $30,000, and imposed a further $150,900 penalty against the company Chokhani and his wife, Gaura Nitai Pty Ltd.

The worker is an Indian national, and had been sponsored by Gaura Nitai to work as a cook at the cafe.

In his judgment, Jarrett said, "The exploitation of workers from other countries who are inspired to live and work in Australia with the hope of achieving permanent residency needs to be discouraged, in the strongest of terms whenever it is apparent that it has occurred. This is one of those cases.”

The worker was meant to be paid an annual salary of $53,900, however there were long periods of time where Chokhani  and Gaura Nitai failed to pay him.

The worker went without pay for four months from July to November 2014 and then again for four weeks in Feburary to March 2015.

Following this period, Chokhani and Gaura Nitai paid the worker $19,334 but required the worker to withdraw $18,000 in cash and repay him or face the cancelling of his 457 visa.

The worker withdrew the cash that same day and repaid it to Chokhani.

Judge Jarrett found that the behaviour of Chokhani "especially egregrious", saying it was “an inappropriate and grotesque exploitation of the power imbalance that existed between (Chokhani) and (the worker)”. 

The worker was ultimately short-changed $23,546, which has since been repaid.

Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James was disappointed with Chokhani's actions and believes the penalties reflect the seriousness of exploiting vulnerable foreign workers.

She said, "We will do everything within our power to pursue any employer who thinks they can exploit the power imbalance they have over migrant workers they employ.

“Any unscrupulous employer tempted to engage in this sort of conduct should think again because there are serious consequences for this type of behaviour.”