A migrant worker cheated out of tens of thousands of dollars says his former employer should be imprisoned as a warning to other exploiters.
Devinder Mann, who owned several pizza stores in South Auckland, underpaid his worker Deepak Dhiman by about $98,000 over the course of eight years.
In October 2022, the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) ordered Mann to pay Dhiman what he owed, but more than a year later, he is still refusing to do so.
Migrant advocates and employment experts say while defiance of court orders is commonplace, putting Mann behind bars could be a precedent-setting sentence.
Dhiman arrived in New Zealand in 2012, a 17-year-old from India eager to make a new life for himself. A friend helped him to get a job at a franchise pizza store in Mangere.
His troubles began during his training period - a week of work where he was not paid a cent.
"I didn't know anything so I thought, okay, they must be telling me the truth," Dhiman said. "I just kept working. I wasn't aware that in the future I would be in problems."
However, problems are what he got.
Deepak's troubles begin
Dhiman spent the next eight years locked into a job that exploited him for cheap labour.
Mann's company Naanak Limited (now in liquidation) forced Dhiman to work long hours of overtime with no extra pay, and withheld holiday pay.
Even for his set hours Dhiman was underpaid, starting out on $8 an hour when the minimum wage was $13.50.
However, after shifting from a student visa to a work visa which was attached to the company, he felt he had no choice but to stick it out.
"The thing is, he promised when he hired me that he would help me get permanent residency in New Zealand.
"[In 2015] I was already working there for three years. I didn't want to quit because I had already given my three years to him, and if I left, if I went somewhere else, then I [would] have to start it from the bottom."
In 2019, Mann sold one of his shops to another employee and Dhiman continued working there, scared his visa might otherwise get cancelled.
But by 2020, it had become clear that Mann was not going to help him gain permanent residency, and Dhiman left the job.
He became depressed and considered going home to his family.
"I didn't want to be here crying and sitting in the room and talking to myself. They said, 'Okay, just come back, and we will see what happens next'."
However, when a friend suggested he talk with migrant rights advocate Sunny Sehgal, Dhiman had a change of heart.
"Suddenly I realised if I go back home to my country, he won't know what he has done wrong to me."
Dhiman and Sehgal started pursuing the unpaid wages and holiday pay owed to Dhiman. In response, Mann paid a visit to Dhiman's brother.
"He was threatening him: 'I know some police officers in India, they will take your parents'."
However, Dhiman persisted, taking his case to the ERA. On 6 October, 2022, the ERA ordered Mann to pay his former worker $69,981 in arrears of wages, $28,153.14 in arrears of holiday pay and interest on the two amounts.
He was given 28 days to pay up, but more than a year later - and with interest mounting - he had failed to do so. And he told Checkpoint he did not intend to.
"I'm prepared to go all the way," Mann said. "It might take me five years, 10 years, 15, but it will happen."
Sunny Sehgal said delay tactics were typical in cases like these.
"After the determination, the employer does a runner on them, and they basically give up, because it's too hard for them to keep chasing these employers who have disobeyed the directions."
Level up: The Employment Court
Dhiman and his advocates then took the case to the Employment Court.
In August, the court ordered Mann to pay a fine of $10,000 on top of what he owed Dhiman, "to deter him from any future breaches" and "underline the fact that compliance orders must be obeyed". Of this, $6000 would go to Dhiman and $4000 to the Crown.
However, Mann had ignored this fine too.
Another of Deepak's advocates, John Wood, said it was time to pursue an even tougher penalty.
"A term of imprisonment is warranted because of his failure to engage in respect of the money that he owes."
When a person failed to comply with an Employment Court order, the court could fine the person up to $40,000, order the seizure of their property or sentence them to a prison term of up to three months.
In September, Wood filed another application in the Employment Court.
"We've been there previously, and last time we obtained a penalty against the employer," he said. "But unfortunately, that had no impact, so we're going back to the court."
As Mann had already been issued a fine, that left the options of property sequestration or prison.
Next stop, prison?
Employment experts Checkpoint spoke to said they had never heard of the Employment Court sentencing an employer to prison for failure to comply with a compliance order.
However, employment lawyer Barbara Buckett said the court did have this power.
"I don't think courts like issuing compliance orders or any order and people just flouting it," Buckett said. "I don't think they'll take that lightly at all."
The Employment Court had sentenced an employee to 21 days' imprisonment for non-compliance.
In the 2017 case ALA v ITE, Judge Bruce Corkill said, "Whilst the imposition of a sentence of imprisonment is an order of last resort, and I have not been referred to any recorded instances where this has occurred previously, that possibility must be considered on this occasion, given the multiplicity of breaches, against the continued deliberate flouting of the court's compliance orders".
Buckett said such non-compliance was becoming commonplace among employers.
"Particularly, too, a lot of these are in the vulnerable workers area," she said. "We've got minimum statutory requirements that they haven't met, and when they get a determination against them, these employers either disappear or just resist and resist and resist."
'Nothing more than a… parasite'
Mann claimed Dhiman's advocates were trying to ruin his life.
"It's all to do with John Wood," he said. "I'm so pissed off. These guys are nothing more than a ****ing parasite to society."
Checkpoint asked Mann why he had not presented his case to the ERA or Employment Court
"Who's going to listen?" he said. "I went there… They're all ****ing crooks."
Mann failed to show at an ERA meeting Checkpoint attended in March.
In Mann's absence, ERA member Eleanor Robinson ordered him to comply with the ERA's October 2022 determination and pay Dhiman what he was owed.
At a previous meeting, when the ERA told Mann he would be under oath, he left without producing any evidence, claiming the whole process was a "set-up".
Mann told Checkpoint that Dhiman had worked under about six different managers and said the ERA had not considered this.
"So, you're telling me I'm corrupt, or everyone else who worked at the company - six managers he worked under - are corrupt."
Checkpoint pointed out that Mann was the director of the company.
"It doesn't matter," he said. "He was reporting to the manager, not me."
In its 2022 determination, the ERA found that given Mann's role as sole director and shareholder of Naanak Limited, "it is apparent that Mr Mann was heavily involved in the breaches".
Mann had now been served with a summons to attend a financial assessment hearing, where his ability to pay what was owed to Dhiman would be assessed.
Checkpoint asked him what he thought would happen if he kept refusing to pay.
"I got nothing, simple as that. You can send me to prison, I'll go to prison - I'm ready for it."
Dhiman welcomed this prospect.
"I was working in his store like I'm a prisoner," he said. "If he goes to prison then he will know how it feels working as a slave."