Migrant workers allegedly exploited by Bottle O store

From Checkpoint, 5:14 pm on 5 March 2019

Three migrant workers claim "Bottle O" franchise owner Ravinder Arora has underpaid them by tens of thousands of dollars, and even asked them to repay him money, the Migrant Workers Association says. 

The association said in one case a worker at the stores based in Auckland and the South Island worked 84 hours in a week but was only paid for 32 hours, meaning their actual pay was only $7 an hour, half the legal minimum wage of the time. 

In another case Mr Arora paid the workers correctly and according to their pay slips, but would then demand the employees refund him thousands of dollars in cash, again leaving their pay packet light and below the minimum wage. 

At the time, migrant workers visas tied them specifically to Mr Arora's businesses. 

Migrant Workers Association spokesperson Anu Kaloti said there was solid evidence.

"We have cases where fellow workers who worked alongside are witnesses that those workers worked those hours - for example saw the same worker opened the shop and then closing the shop at the end of the day.

"These are liquor stores we're talking about, which easily open 10, 11, sometimes 12 hours a day." 

Card payment in liquor store

Photo: 123rf

"We've also got audio recordings where a conversation between one of the workers and the employer about the hourly rate and how the employer is not able to afford the pay rate that their visa demands."

She said the recording included the employer asking for thousands of dollars back out of the worker's pay because they could not afford it otherwise. 

"So 'this is how much you've given me and this is how much you need to give me by a certain date'."

Ms Kaloti said they had gone through some of the process for seeking redress from Mr Arora, but only been partly successful. 

In a previous investigation in July 2014 the Labour Inspectorate issued an Enforceable Undertaking to Ravinder Kumar Arora, in relation to eight of his companies, for failings in employment agreements, record keeping, and provision of holiday and leave entitlements. 

That resulted in $30,000 in arrears being paid to employees. 

"He settled to pay just one year's worth of annual leave although all three workers have worked more than one year - one of them's been with him three plus years," Ms Kaloti said. 

"That's the only settlement they've had ... we approached for next session of talks and mediation directly, we were told that these workers are not owed any more and so then we took the next logical step of going through the labour inspectorate."

Migrant Workers Association spokesperson Anu Kaloti.

Migrant Workers Association spokesperson Anu Kaloti. Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

She said they had put a request in with the inspectorate, which approached Mr Arora, but he had ignored them. 

"It wasn't just our direct request, it was a request from mediation services at MBIE that Mr Arora has ignored." 

The Labour Inspectorate has confirmed it is "currently progressing proactive investigations in Mr Arora's Nikhil Himalaya Companies".  

Ms Kaloti said the employees she was working with had no power in this situation. 

"It's because their visas are attached to this employer," she said. 

"That is the threat that is used against them ... 'if you do not pay up, or you do not do the extra hours, or you do not work without any rest breaks or meal breaks we will inform immigration and get your visa cancelled and next thing you know you'll be deported'. 

"That's the situation in this case as well."

She said most migrant workers in New Zealand dreamed of settling here permanently - a dream reinforced by the government and Immigration NZ, and would do anything to achieve that dream. 

"That is their ultimate goal and they are relying on the employers to achieve that goal ... they'll do anything to not compromise their dream." 

She said while it could be argued the workers were complicit in trying to get their visas through inaccurate reporting of their wages or hours, they had no power in the relationship. 

"Employment law does make a provision that you do have to look at the balance of power here. The employers hold all power in this relationship.

"Each one of [the workers] has a slightly different claim in terms of dollars but we're looking at tens of thousands of dollars put together between these three workers. 

"We have been doing calculations so we have sent all our figures to the employer. Unfortunately it's just not been reciprocated and we've just not had any evidence from the other side." 

RNZ has made repeated attempts to contact  Ravinder Arora  - he hung up on our producer after telling her to contact his lawyer, but refused to provide details for them. 

Employees at two of his Auckland businesses today said he was not on site, but that they were paid fairly and above the minimum wage.