Australia: Former Indian envoy Navdeep Suri ordered to pay penalty for underpaying domestic staff Seema Shergill

Former Indian High Commissioner to Australia, Navdeep Suri, has been ordered to pay a penalty of nearly $100,000 to an ex-domestic help, whom he had paid less than $10 a day for over a year’s worth of work, Australia’s national broadcaster, ABC News reported.

The latest penalty is in addition to the previous order by the federal court that required Suri to repay $136,000 plus interest for the work Seema Shergill did at the then-high commissioner’s residence in Canberra.

During the hearing in November 2023, Justice Elizabeth Raper of the federal court heard that Shergill went to Australia in April 2015, and worked for a year for Suri. She worked seven days a week for 17.5 hours a day over a 13-month period between April 2015 and May 2016.

The court heard that Shergill was paid the equivalent of nearly $3,400 for her work, which included cleaning the house, cooking, tending the garden, and walking Suri’s dog. Furthermore, the money was transferred to an Indian bank account, which she did have any access to while in Australia, ABC News reported.

Now, Justice Elizabeth Raper has asked Suri to pay Shergill a penalty of $97,200 within 60 days. The federal court has found Suri’s conduct amounted to as many as nine contraventions of the Fair Work Act.

This is the maximum penalty the court could have enforced, ABC News reported.

In her written judgment, Justice Raper said Navdeep Suri’s “departures” from his obligations to Seema Shergill were not minor, and in fact, “in every sense egregious and exploitative” in their effect of denying her any “semblance of a work and life divide”.

“The circumstances of this case fall within [the] definition of slave-like conditions,” ABC News reported, quoting Justice Raper.

The judge said Seema Shergill’s harsh working conditioners were aggravated by her inability to take leave.

Justice Raper further said that Suri had not engaged with the proceedings at any point, thereby showing no proof of cooperation and “remorse”.

Meanwhile, Seema Shergill’s pro bono lawyer, Clayton Utz partner David Hillard, said she was courageous in pursuing the case and watching it till its judgment.

“It’s a scary thing to do for somebody who has had no previous experience with the Australian legal system,” ABC News quoted Hillard as saying.

The counsel further said that the verdict should prompt legislative changes to ensure domestic help at diplomatic residences is more “visible”.

INDIA REJECTS COURT RULING

Following the original court order in November 2023 against Navdeep Suri, India strongly dismissed the same, saying Australia had no locus standi to adjudicate on matters concerning India-based service staff of its high commission. External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi called on Canberra to uphold its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

“Her conduct and false representations give rise to suspicions that all this has been motivated by her desire to permanently stay in Australia, and in which she seems to have succeeded,” Bagchi said.

He said the service staff (Shergill) “wilfully deserted her post in May 2016, a day before her scheduled return to India”. “”Since then, we have repeatedly requested Australian authorities to locate and repatriate her to India,” he added.

Published On:

Mar 21, 2024

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