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HomeNew Zealand'Modern-day slavery' liquor boss gets record $1.55m in fines for migrant worker...

‘Modern-day slavery’ liquor boss gets record $1.55m in fines for migrant worker exploitation

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By Steve Kilgallon of Stuff

Sukhdev Singh controlled four Liquor Centre stores where employees were exploited.

Sukhdev Singh controlled four Liquor Centre stores where employees were exploited.
Photo: Stuff/Lawrence Smith

A liquor store boss, and his associated companies, have been slapped with a record $1.55 million in fines after he confiscated workers’ bank cards, forced them to work 70-hour weeks and made them sleep in a cubicle at one of his shops.

Sukhdev Singh, who owned four Liquor Centre stores, will have to pay $415,800 himself within 14 days. The companies which ran the stores have to pay up $1.138m. Singh also received the longest-ever banning order from operating a company, a three-year term starting in January.

Judge Kathryn Beck ruled that while the company shareholdings were now in Singh’s wife, brother and sister-in-law’s names, he was the “controlling mind” of a deliberate and systemic breach of labour laws.

The head of the Labour Inspectorate, Stu Lumsden, said the case “really is modern-day slavery” and hailed it as the first big result for the new Migrant Exploitation team, formed two years ago.

“People were jumping up and down for joy: we are really pleased with this outcome.”

The Migrant Exploitation team – which has other major cases in the pipeline – conducted an 11-month investigation in Singh’s business.

Between September 2015 and November 2019 five migrant Punjabi workers were exploited by Singh, Judge Beck ruled.

All of them arrived on student visas and worked for cash in his kiwifruit harvesting business, but were then persuaded to initially work at night for free in the liquor stores. Then the staff began full-time jobs, averaging between 65 and 70 hours of work a week, and were underpaid a total of $516,378 over 71 separate breaches of employment law.

After negotiations last year between the companies and the Labour Inspectorate, the money was repaid to the men.

Lumsden said they had negotiated with Sukhdev Singh to agree to the facts of the case, to save the costs of a full hearing and get compensation to the victims more quickly. Charges against Singh’s wife, Paramjit Kaur, were dropped as part of that negotiation.

But the inspectorate then pushed for penalties for what Lumsden said was a bad case of “very sustained exploitation of vulnerable migrants”.

“It really is modern-day slavery, and it is a real concern when we see this. Unfortunately, we are seeing a lot of it, and we will be working through those [cases].”

The maximum penalties available totalled $7.4m; the Labour Inspectorate had argued the penalties for “sustained, systemic and serious breaches” should total $3.2m, while the defendant claimed they should be just $330,000 based on their co-operation.

Singh’s lawyer, SS Sharma, had argued against heavy fines, saying that he and his family had “suffered considerable stress and embarrassment”.

He claimed the victims were highly educated, admitted making false declarations to Immigration NZ and had agreed to the arrangements.

The judge dismissed this argument, and claims that Singh had not understood he was breaking the law. The judge said Singh was an experienced businessman who had previously been warned by the Inspector over his kiwifruit business, so knew exactly what the rules were.

The judge ordered payments to be taken from the fines and given to the men. Four men will receive $50,000 each, and the fifth will receive $55,000 after the court heard of their extreme hardship.

Lumsden said the five men were “happy about the amount of money they are going to get”.

“It is a long road, we can’t get through this quickly, so they do have to have some patience. Hopefully they realise it was all worthwhile.”

Judge Beck imposed banning orders on the companies for two years and Singh for three years, although Singh’s counsel, SS Sharma, had argued they were unnecessary as the businesses were sold.

But the judge said Singh had indicated plans to continue in the kiwifruit business.

“The defendants have shown no remorse or insight into their actions. I have little confidence that Sukhdev Singh will not repeat the behaviour which has brought him before the Court.”

The judge said she agreed with the Labour Inspectorate’s belief that Singh’s evidence “exhibits a troubling lack of insight into the effects of these breaches on the employees”.

Singh, who claimed his wage and time records were stolen from his house, had shown no evidence of contrition, Beck said.

“There is little evidence of remorse or understanding on the part of Sukhdev Singh as to the impact of the defendants’ failures on the employees.

“His assertion that all of the employees were always in a comfortable financial position during their employment and that none of them was upset or depressed about their work or work environment, was clearly untenable, and yet it was a view that he maintained throughout the hearing.”

The five men had given evidence of how they worked extremely long hours: each averaging between 65 and 70 hours per week.

Navjot Sidhu slept in the storeroom of the Paeroa Liquor Centre, was underpaid and forced to hand over his bank card and pin. He had to borrow money to survive and suffered stress and depression.

Dupinder Singh said he worked for three months without a single day off, while Harpreet Singh worked seven days a week for nearly two years, had to work while injured and handed over $6000 cash to Sukhdev Singh when he demanded it.

Judge Beck had earlier imposed unprecedented freezing orders to stop Singh selling the stores to companies linked to his brother and sister-in-law.

Lumsden said they realised early in the investigation how serious it was, so applied for the freezing order, and lifted it only when a bank guarantee was lodged for $3m.

“So the good news is we know the money is there and we can get that money to those that were exploited,” he said.

The four companies owned Liquor Centre franchises in Te Puna, Greerton, Paeroa and Cherrywood, and the shares in all four now mostly sat in the names of Singh’s wife, brother, and sister-in-law.

Tasman Liquor chief executive Grant Simpson said the offending happened before they bought the Liquor Centre chain in 2020. He said they terminated their relationship with the Samra group in 2021 after the first judgement against them.

Two of the stores have been sold, one has been sold and runs under another franchise, while the Greerton store has not been part of the chain but “it has come to our attention that the store still has Liquor Centre signage displayed which will be removed immediately”, he said.

Simpson said they would not work with the group again and was working with the Inspectorate to “eradicate this type of behaviour” from the industry.

Liquor law specialist and campaigner Grant Hewison said the case was unprecedented.

“I have not seen anything like this in terms of the level of offending and the degree of penalties.

“However, while this is at the serious end of the spectrum, I have seen numerous examples of the same kind of employee exploitation and offending across the bottle store retail sector.”

This pointed to a major systemic problem for migrant employees being used for commercial gain within the liquor industry, he said.

This story was originally published on Stuff.

Story Credit: rnz.co.nz

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