By: Gurbir Singh                                                                                          Freelance Feature Writer & Journalist                                    

Another case of alleged ‘exploitation’ of a vulnerable Indian student by an employer in New Zealand has come to light in Auckland yesterday.

Manjinder Singh, 23 who hails from the Gurdaspur district of Punjab, has claimed $80,000 in ‘unpaid wages’ from his employer, Nikhil Himalaya Parkland Ltd (trading as ‘Bottle-O’), whose director is Ravinder Arora. The company is said to own and run over 20 liquor stores in New Zealand, with at least 5 in Auckland.

Yesterday evening, a small group of Unite Union members and Manjinder’s sympathisers, gathered to protest outside the shop in Pt Chevalier, Auckland where  he earlier worked. There was a heated exchange of words between the two parties outside the shop, when the store denied that any wages were due to Manjinder.

In the telephonic interview with this journalist today, Manjinder claimed he worked for at least 60 hours a week for nearly three years, but was paid only for half the hours he worked.

Manjinder said, “I came to New Zealand in February 2014 on a student visa to study business, and while studying, I started working part-time at this liquor store. For the first two months even though I worked full-time hours, I was not paid anything as the employer said it was a trial period and you don’t get paid”.

“In September last year (2016) when I received my work visa, I was given a full-time contract of 30 hours at an hourly rate of $17. But I was made to work over 60 hours per week, but received wages for only 30 hours – $432.51 a week after tax.

Manjinder finally left the job about six weeks ago after his request for leave for a trip to India was declined.

“For all the hours that I worked, my average wage comes to just $7 per hour, whereas the minimum wage today is $ 15.75. So, I have been out of pocket by nearly $100,000 for the three years that I have worked for this owner.”

During this interview, Manjinder alleged that in one of the meetings, Arora “agreed” to pay him $80,000, but has now “backed out”. He also claimed to have a secret audio recording of this conversation.

Today, the Labour Department reportedly confirmed that the matter is under their investigation.

On behalf of the liquor store, Kamal Deep, however, has denied all charges of under- or non-payment of wages, and described these allegations as “baseless”.

“Everything was perfectly paid every week. He (Manjinder) is up to date with his wages, including (taxes) with IRD.

“If you are not happy with your job, how long will you wait? Why would anyone work for $7? Why did he work for three years, if he was not happy with this? He is lying to get the money,” Deep remarked.

At this stage, it is one’s word against the other, but Deep asserts that they are ready to fight it out in court if it comes to that.

No doubt, such cases are giving a bad name to employers. When this journalist sought comments from a couple of other Indian employers on this issue, they were first tight-lipped.

But on condition of anonymity, one said that at times employers get wrongly blamed.

Talking about Indian students in general(and not specific to this case), some of them were actually thankless, he said. “They(students) are given work when they need it most, but recent changes in immigration rules have made them jittery, as most won’t qualify for residency. So, some of them file frivolous complaints against employers to gain sympathy of the authorities, thinking this will give them a chance to stay on in New Zealand”,he added.

This is not the first case of alleged exploitation of migrant workers or international students that have surfaced. The government has already cracked down on migrant labour exploitation, and heavy penalties are imposed on employers, if it is proved.

Ultimate sufferers would, however, be international students who would now find it harder to get work. Employers may think twice before hiring them for the risk of facing allegations subsequently.