Unscrupulous Indian origin entrepreneurs arrested in epic visa and employment scam
By Kittu Randhawa and The Indian Telegraph editorial team
Community in crisis
It’s a scam that is taking on epic proportions as facts unfold, leaving in its wake a shocked community, a host of wronged individuals and a feeling of displacement and uncertainty.
On August 5, 2015, a series of raids were organised by the Australian Federal Police (AFP), the Australian Border Force (ABF) and the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA), on people alleged to be involved in running an alleged criminal syndicate which rorted visas and exploited foreign students. Acting on information uncovered by a Fairfax Media investigation that spanned months, collaborative forces moved in to bring the perpetrators to justice.
According to various mainstream media reports, Baljit ‘Bobby’ Singh and associates Rakesh Kumar and Mukesh Sharma were taken into custody, following raids on six properties in the Melbourne suburbs of Balwyn, Lalor, Epping, Preston and Tarneit, and $8.5 million worth of assets were seized, alleged to have been derived from the men’s criminal activities. These included a 2014 Ferrari, a 2015 Range Rover, the six properties, $180,000 in cash, along with jewellery and other assets.
Singh, 34, has been charged with five criminal offences including defrauding the Commonwealth and falsifying documents including police checks and student records, in relation to two training colleges. His business partners, Kumar (37) and Sharma (42), face similar charges.
While the news made international headlines and the Indian community in general is still coming to terms with the scam, the real losers are scores of Indian-origin students in Melbourne who have found themselves floundering, following the arrests and subsequent shutting down of the two training colleges in which they have been registered.
Bobby and his Ferrari
Photographs of Singh’s red Ferrari being secured onto a tow truck have been splashed across mainstream media, and initial indications are that it will be quite a while before he takes it out for a spin again. It is alleged that Singh masterminded the syndicate which involves several other Indian business figures, including a licensed government migration agent, and student recruitment agents in India and China.
Reports say that Singh’s two government-subsidised training colleges, St Stephens Institute and Symbiosis Institute of Technical Education enticed Indian students into Australia and then sub-contracted them to Australia Post on sub-standard, below minimum wages as posties or delivery centre staff, sorting and delivering packages. St Stephens Institute has attracted hundreds of fee-paying foreign students over several years who were individually charged up to $10,000, but apparently, did not provide them with education. The students were often promised a working visa or permanent residency at the end of their education course, but were instead, routed into the positions at Australia Post. The AFP said that since their establishment, the two colleges have charged ‘over $9 million in tuition fees from international students as well as fraudulently claiming approximately $2 million in government funding.’
Awkward Australia Post
The issue has been severely embarrassing for the Federal Government as the owner of Australia Post, as it also funded Singh’s labour hire contracts, on top of the millions of dollars in student subsidies paid to his training college. The timing couldn’t be worse as the Abbott government is trying to avoid pressure from unions to clamp down on the increase number of foreign workers being introduced in Australia
In November 2014, Fairfax Media discovered that Singh and his associates were using fraudulent National Police Checks to pass various regulatory hurdles, including those required to operate a college for international students.
Singh’s Australia Post business has been very profitable as indicated by internal Australia Post spreadsheets which show that from just one quarter of his delivery contracts, his company Oz Trade and Services is paid around $60,000 a month by Australia Post! Singh is suspected of underpaying, or paying no superannuation or overtime, to many of these foreign workers, who are effectively indentured to him on the promise of obtaining Australian visas to work or study.
Singh, Sharma and Kumar pocketed the tuition fees from students and got away for years, despite suspicion from the posties union, who showed concern when it was discovered that his company was underpaying delivery drivers. Of the approximately hundred workers employed by Singh, it is alleged that about 60 are on student visas.
Australia Post went into damage control mode once the news broke, issuing a statement claiming that it had “terminated all delivery contracts with a Victorian contractor at the centre of an Australian Federal Police investigation, reinforcing the strong working relationship with authorities and commitment to stamping-out any alleged illegal behaviour.”
However, this action comes too late, considering that the Communications Union, which represents postal workers, had been warning Australia Post since 2012 about Bobby Singh’s operations.
On July 30, 2012, union state secretary Joan Doyle wrote to Australia Post manager Vance Duke, warning about the mistreatment and sham-contracting of workers at delivery centres contracted to Singh’s firms. “These arrangements have led to many types of exploitation,” Ms Doyle wrote. “We know that many of these workers are not covered by Worker’s Compensation and do not receive superannuation. Some of them are paid cash in hand and operate with international (driver’s) licenses. Many receive no payments for overtime hours or early starts.”
In late 2014, Ms Doyle began action in the Fair Work Commission against Singh’s companies in a move that led to the union writing to Australia Post to reiterate its concerns about his operations. Australia Post moved to overhaul its compliance regime in April.
Tip of the iceberg
It is believed that dozens of criminal groups are involved in migration crime and immigration authorities are unable to combat syndicates who are suspected of rorting temporary labour or student visa schemes and exploiting overseas workers.
Singh is only one of several figures allegedly running migration or labour rackets, and brazenly flaunting the law under the nose of the government. The rackets often involve foreign student colleges, employers or migration agents who recruit foreign nationals willing to make large payments to obtain the qualifications or jobs needed to get Australian visas or permanent residency.
Fairfax Media has identified several colleges and migration agents who are taking large cash payments in return for providing fraudulent qualifications, fake work placements or jobs in which overseas workers are exploited. A Senate inquiry is also investigating foreign worker exploitation, following allegations of migrant farm labourers being grossly underpaid and kept in slave-like conditions.
Following the first closures, the media has subsequently reported on the closure of three other training colleges, with another four to soon lose state government funding after a crackdown uncovered serious fraud and misconduct.
At the time of going to press, further 17 training organisations have been placed under case management, where they will be closely monitored. The Victorian Government has withheld $14.9 million from these providers while their investigation continues. In a Victorian first, the state government has named and shamed the training colleges that have had their contracts terminated.
Vulnerability of TRMs
Many Temporary Residency Migrants (TRM), especially students experience significant difficulties in settling here. There are no specific services in Australia that support settlement of residents, their entitlements fall short when hurt or face trauma, and they have to find funds to cover expenses not always obvious to locals, as such things are taken for granted.
The precarious nature of the residency renders these usually young people to be vulnerable to exploitation. In the last ten years, in spite of several stories in the media and reports from immigration about scams that exploit TRM not much has changed that offers better protections. The fact is that many students and temporary workers are on lower wages and do not complain of degraded or poor working conditions.
Temporary workers (commonly called 457 visa holders) has raised the ire of some in the local community, claiming they are taking their jobs, regardless that many TRM fill vocational roles that locals no longer wish to take up. This confronting situation along with a constant fear of deportation has led to TRM to shy away from integrating properly into the wider community. Making them even more vulnerable.
Exploitation of TRM can start well before they apply for their visas back home, with unscrupulous agents who openly advertise and sell the dream to Australia (and other Western countries). Only for TRM to find themselves in what can be a nightmare, falsely led to believe they have few other options so they can continue to be manipulated and do as they are told.
The international student
It’s unfair to demonise those who have fallen into the traps that are so eloquently set for them and all made to look very legitimate, by unscrupulous agents. Many potential migrants are manipulated by being sold the story that a little enhancement of paperwork is a minor risk which will remain undetected and be irrelevant by the time they get their permanent residencies.
The sales pitch back home never includes the correct meaning of ‘temporary’ being just that, but as one of the steps in the pursuit of permanent residency. TRM are frequently seen to be kept in ongoing temporary residency schemes, through fear of deportation and the longer it goes, the greater the loss on what is seen as the investment to get permanent residency.
While this does not excuse the behaviour of the participants fully, there must be compassion for them as they are not fully aware of their rights and obligations. There is an entire boom industry pushing them to believe studying is a legitimate way into Australia and Agents pushing the idea that it will all end in Permanent Residency, even if it won’t. Therefore some responsibility lies with the system that allows it to happen.
The financial criteria set by Australia’s immigration processes is supposed to ensure that TRM are financially self-sufficient in all their needs and expenses for the duration of their visa and residency in Australia. It is abundantly clear that some of these people do not have the financial means and therefore suffer incredible financial difficulty when they arrive.
TRM are wholly dependent on whatever work they can find to meet all their expenses. On top of which they often still have liabilities to pay including quite exorbitant fees to agents who have made their arrangements. Some of these debts include money borrowed at high interest rates (through their agents) that goes into their bank accounts to show they have the financial resources as per the immigration criteria.
Education and the economic boom
Some reports and people in the community claim that students enter their study or work agreements fully aware this is not a genuine route to migrate to Australia, so knowingly break the law and therefore should suffer the consequences. Some elements of this may be true, however it’s unlikely any of those people are fully aware of how beholden they might become, how costly a process this would be, and how far their lives may be out of their control.
An early observation for anyone who travels to India is the successful marketing campaigns of the life of study and work in Australia. Any contrary opinion or comment of the difficulties or expense is quickly dismissed by local agents as a few exceptions to the rule. As an Australian on a visit, it’s easy to see how attractive the prospect of studying or working in Australia seems to be which lures them in, despite knowing that some of this is not as good as depicted.
One of Australia’s economic booms is education; Australian Education tourism has been pushing the message to come and study in Australia. We have regular Education Trade delegations between Indian and Australia selling this product of Education and to seal the deal, Adam Gilchrist was recently announced as the Ambassador for Education.
Let’s face it this is big business, quantified on the Austrade website as: “The average expenditure by international education visitors in Australia in 2010–11 was A$15,213, which is much higher than the average expenditure of A$2,329 per visitor for other international tourists.”
After nearly ten years of this system being in use, it is difficult to reconcile that we are unaware in Australia that these are not wealthy people or people with means that come on these schemes. These are people who at times sell what little they have and get into debt with the intention to work hard in bettering their lives. What ends up happening is they work harder and harder, but their lives may follow the path of many years of spiralling debt repayment.
Authorities and many self-appointed community leaders however see no problem with the situation and offer banal commentary, quickly moving onto other topics when questioned.
The bottom line is that for both India and Australia, it’s a very profitable industry; the reality is it’s even more profitable when exploiting vulnerable people! Until better regulations are in place and enforced, this is unlikely to be the end of it, and more people will be exploited.
Authorities have been quick to cancel visas of people who are essentially victims, through technical breaches of the law; but not so quick in prosecuting offenders; closing rogue institutions and ensuring the people behind the exploitation do not get to start again under a new persona. Nor do the authorities crack down on the various agents that lure innocent and aspirational young people into exploitation.
The one thing that can be done is to change the system; there is no valid reason for TRM to be technically breaking the law and be exploited, when clearly their productivity in Australia and their contribution to the economy is valid and necessary. We can have the same outcome in a system where rules don’t need to be broken, people are paid properly and the system is robust enough to protect migrants from taking unnecessary risks.
ICSA Crisis Action Group
The Indian (Sub-Cont.) Crisis & Support Agency (ICSA) was launched last year in Western Sydney, in response to the rapid influx of migrants from the Sub-Continent over a relatively short period of time. ICSA was specifically set up in recognition that a significant proportion of new migrants from the subcontinent are first arriving in Australia on temporary visas for study or work, and are open to exploitation, with little formal support.
ICSA was on hand following the arrest of Bobby Singh and his cohorts and the suspension of the private colleges he owned, which left their students wondering what would happen to their study, their visas and the money they have spent.
As the contract with Australia Post terminated, the temporary workers were left in a precarious situation. The ICSA determined to take direct action to support students affected by working with them and the system. For the people affected, this is a crisis situation, particularly as a number of them were seen to be desperately seeking help via social media and word of mouth. Some of the advice being offered, while being well intended could be misleading.
The ICSA established a Crisis Action Group to hold drop-in clinics on the weekend of 15-16 Aug 2015 in Melbourne. The clinics offered the affected people confidential and professional guidance regarding their situations. The students and workers were naturally hesitant and worried, with many of them just confused. The common issues were naturally the status of their visas, how to complete their studies, what would happen to the fees they’ve already paid and the effect of this situation on their families.
The ICSA contacted relevant Government Agencies to establish the rights and options for the students and therefore were invited to attend the meeting held by Tuition Protection Service (TPS) as an NGO advocate for the students. All parties are now proactively working together to get the students back to their study and refunds of fees where applicable.
Nemesis is finally catching up with Bobby Singh and those of his ilk. While it is hoped that the current situation will see justice served on the perpetrators and will help expose other scams of a similar nature, the greed and cruelty of operators exploiting vulnerable people is shocking and despicable. The Indian community at large prides itself on a strong ethos of morality that finds its roots in tradition spanning thousands of years, and the diaspora settled here are generally law abiding in nature. However, the actions of a few individuals acting out of self-interest and avarice has cast a shadow on the Indian community here, which will take time and effort to dispel.
Also compiled by the editorial team from online and print media sources