australian dollars minimum wage
Clare Mason holds A$15.96 in her hands, the amount she earns in one hour on the minimum wage, at the Gujaga Child Care Centre La Perouse June 18, 2013. Reuters/David Gray

A Perth restaurant owner has been ordered to pay a fine worth more than $200,000 for exploiting an overseas worker. Simon Peter Mackenzie paid his cook almost nothing for four months of work then sacked him via text message for being sick.

The Federal Court heard on Monday that Mackenzie employed an overseas worker as the cook for the Indian restaurant Curry Tree in Nedlands before the restaurant was burnt down in 2014. The worker, a 24-year-old Indian national who was in Australia on a bridging visa, was paid $200 in cash for his first few days of work in 2012. But then he worked six nights per week for the next four months without receiving any pay.

The unnamed worker was reluctant to complain because he was hoping Mackenzie’s company, Siner Enterprises Pty Ltd, would sponsor him on a work visa. When he sent Mackenzie a text message to inform him he could not attend work because he was sick and would just provide a medical certificate the following day, Mackenzie responded with a series of messages, terminating him and then threatening him.

“dont come back,” Mackenzie initially wrote before adding, “Dont expect .any sympathy,pls don’t my lawyer sue you for defamation of/mycharacter. Pls return key today.” [sic]

He added a short time later, “If you dont answer i will ring the police and say you possession of my keys to my business and I want them bak. they will come to your house and arrest you for theft.” [sic]

The worker lodged a complaint after that, and the Fair Work Ombudsman commenced an investigation. Mackenzie denied any wrongdoing, claiming he and his company were in compliance with workplace laws. But the court found them to be in violation of the laws.

Judge Antoni Lucev said the manner in which Mackenzie terminated the worker’s employment was “more egregious” and the “deliberateness of the contraventions is plainly proven.” He also criticised Mackenzie’s conduct in court, saying the owner displayed “sheer belligerence” and directed “hostility” towards the worker and the FWO legal representatives. Mackenzie even went as far as to suggest that the worker might have somehow been involved in the events leading to the burning down of the restaurant when there had been no evidence supporting it.

Lucev said Mackenzie did not display remorse and had instead said he would not apologise. The owner’s attitude is a “serious concern in relation to any possible future employment by him or by any company he is associated with,” the judge said.

Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James applauded the court’s decision, saying it sends a message that deliberate exploitation of overseas workers in the country has serious consequences.

“This case involved shameful exploitation of a vulnerable worker and the employer’s conduct in this matter thoroughly deserved the strong criticism it received from the court,” she said. “Migrant and overseas workers in Australia are lawfully entitled to the same minimum wages and conditions as any other worker. There is no place in Australia for this kind of highly exploitative and callous treatment of a young, overseas worker — and we will not hesitate to pursue any business operator who seeks to engage in this type of conduct.”

Mackenzie has been penalised $34,815, while Siner Enterprises has been penalised $174,075. In addition, they were ordered to pay the worker a total of $32,661 in outstanding wages and compensation.