Media Release: Federal Court finds former Indian High Commissioner committed "significant breaches of Australian law" and owes Clayton Utz client $189,000

06 Nov 2023
Time to read: 1.5 MIN

In a case run by the Clayton Utz pro bono team, the Federal Court has held that former Indian High Commissioner to Australia, Mr Navdeep Suri Singh, owes his former domestic worker and Clayton Utz client  $189,000 in unpaid wages. A further hearing will be held next year to determine the additional penalties which Mr Suri must pay for his multiple breaches of the Fair Work Act.

Background of case

When Mr Navdeep Suri Singh was appointed Indian High Commissioner in Australia in 2015, he brought our client, Ms S, with him to live and work at his official residence in Canberra. Mr Suri took our client's passport away from her. Ms S was forced to work 17.5 hour days – cooking, cleaning, washing and gardening for Mr Suri and his wife – seven days a week, for over a year, without a single day off.

Ms S was paid less than $10 a day, sent directly to an Indian bank account set up by the High Commissioner. Mr Suri forbade her from leaving his residence. She was frightened, knew no-one in Canberra, spoke and read no English, and without her passport had no way of leaving or returning home. Eventually Ms S summoned the courage to run away, and after sleeping rough found assistance from the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Salvation Army.

Legal response

Ms S was referred for pro bono assistance by the Trafficking and Slavery Safe House Program at the Salvation Army. Clayton Utz commenced an unpaid wages claim under the Fair Work Act, and instructed Prue Bindon of Key Chambers as pro bono counsel.

On 3 November 2023, Justice Raper of the Federal Court of Australia found in Shergill v Singh [2023] FCA 1346 that the employment conditions of Ms S "bore no resemblance to what one would expect under Australian law", and that Mr Navdeep Suri Singh had committed "significant breaches" of employment law. Mr Suri was ordered to pay $136,276.62, plus a further $53,427.09 owing in interest on that amount since 2016.

Significantly, this case establishes that after an official has left their diplomatic post, there is no diplomatic immunity available to protect former diplomats against Australian employment law claims by their domestic workers.

Clayton Utz Pro Bono Partner David Hillard, who led the team for Ms S, says:

We know that this is not an isolated case. Domestic workers in foreign diplomatic residences are among the most vulnerable workers in Australia. It is hard to conceive of someone in 21st century Australia literally being trapped in a job for more than a year and earning less than 60 cents an hour. This decision by Justice Raper, along with next year's separate penalties hearing against Mr Navdeep Suri Singh, sends a clear message that these workers have rights in Australia, and that Ambassadors and High Commissioners cannot hide behind diplomatic immunity when it comes to keeping their servants locked up in forced labour.
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