25 Nov 2015

Restaurant underpaid workers, falsified evidence

7:37 pm on 25 November 2015

A restaurant near Nelson has been fined more than $90,000 for paying its workers less than the minimum wage, then falsifying evidence when investigated.

The Employment Relations Authority has found Rohit Sharma and Gurpreet Singh worked more than 70 hour weeks at Taste of Egypt in Richmond but were often only paid for 30 hours.

Hummus with olive oil, herbs, pitta bread and spices.

Photo: 123RF

A investigation by the Labour Inspectorate found the restaurant failed to pay workers the minimum wage or keep any sort of wage and time records.

It was alerted when a member of the public working nearby tipped off a labour inspector.

When asked to provide written statements, the authority found Taste of Egypt provided two letters from Mr Sharma and Mr Singh that absolved the restaurant of wrongdoing.

"They were clearly written by the same individual," the authority found.

The letters said the employees were confused when approached by the inspector as English was not their primary language.

"I have now since learned that what I said to the labour inspector was incorrect," said one.

Mr Sharma and Mr Singh said the letters had been written by a director of Taste of Egypt, Diane MacFarlane, and were told the restaurant would go under and they would lose their jobs if they didn't sign them.

The authority also found Taste of Egypt enforced the excessive hours by monitoring the workers on surveillance cameras watched at home by Ms MacFarlane's husband and restaurant co-owner Saeed Awad.

It found if Mr Awad saw either worker underperforming or not doing anything productive, he would telephone and remonstrate with them.

Taste of Egypt denied most of the accusations, but its evidence was dismissed as less credible than that of the inspectorate and Mr Sharma and Mr Singh.

The restaurant applied for name suppression, but was refused.

The $91,921.71 penalty includes an award of $64,559.12 to Mr Sharma and Mr Singh in unpaid wages and holiday pay, a fine for breaching the Employment Act, and a contribution to the inspectorate's investigation.

The restaurant was sold in April last year.

Appeal pending - lawyer

Taste of Egypt lawyer Tony Shallard told RNZ he would not comment on the decision as an appeal was pending.

A union representing food industry workers, meanwhile, said the penalty was not enough.

Unite Union director Mike Treen said workers in these kinds of situations were not adequately compensated.

"All the workers ever get out of it at the end of the day is the wages that they should have been paid," he said.

"I think that these penalties are still very modest. The worker should get a significant additional benefit for being put through this situation."

Mr Treen said the case was just the tip of the iceberg, and many foreign workers were afraid to speak out in fear of losing their visas.

Labour Inspectorate central manager Kevin Finnegan said, while it was likely many more foreign workers were being abused, gathering evidence for similar cases could be difficult.

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