A woman employed by a former Indian High Commissioner to Australia had her passport taken from her, worked 17-hour days and was only allowed to leave the house to look after his dog.
Navdeep Suri Singh has been ordered to pay Seema Shergill about $136,000 after the Federal Court found he had breached fair work laws, with Judge Elizabeth Raper saying the “employment conditions Ms Shergill was subjected to involved significant breaches of Australian law”.
In her decision from Friday (3 November), she said Mr Suri had been announced as the High Commissioner to Australia in February 2015 and asked Indian national Ms Shergill if she would come to the country with him and his wife as a domestic worker.
She started working and living at his home in Red Hill under the direction of him and his wife. Over the next year, Ms Shergill said she worked from 5 am to 11:30 pm every day, had one hour off a day and never took leave.
“I was the only domestic worker at his home in Canberra, and I was responsible for doing everything,” she said.
“The residence was a two-storey house, which I recall had around eight bedrooms, five bathrooms and an enormous sitting room. There was so much to do.”
She said a typical day started with her making tea for him and his wife, taking the dog outside, cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner, then cleaning up afterwards, as well as cleaning the house, doing the laundry and tidying the garden.
“Mr Suri did not allow me to leave his house except to let the dog out onto an open grassy area behind the house. Otherwise, I spent my entire time inside the house,” she said.
Mr Suri paid her every three to four months, sending the money to a bank account he had set up for her in India.
“I could not access this account from Australia,” Ms Shergill said.
She said he paid her the equivalent of about $8 to $9 per day, with the total amount being $3,400 for about a year.
Judge Raper said Ms Shergill felt as though she could not escape working for Mr Suri and was frightened of the consequences that she and her family in India would face if she left. She also did not have her passport as he had taken it.
Ms Shergill said she eventually fled in May 2016 when she was pressured to sign a document that said she was being paid a salary, even though it did not record how much she was being paid.
“I did not take any belongings with me, and I left behind all of my clothes,” she said.
“I slept on the streets. I was too scared to go back to the residence. I was sure that Mr Suri would punish me for leaving.”
She found her way to the Fair Work Ombudsman office and from there was put in contact with the Salvation Army. She was granted a permanent stay visa before gaining Australian citizenship in 2021.
Mr Suri, the Indian High Commissioner to Australia between 2015 and 2016, did not file a defence or engage with the Federal Court proceedings at any stage.
Judge Raper accepted he was not immune from proceedings against him because of foreign state immunity as Ms Shergill was never employed by nor performed work for the High Commission of India.
The judge also accepted that when Mr Suri ended his appointment as High Commissioner and departed Australia, his diplomatic immunity ceased, save for acts he performed as the commissioner.
Judge Raper said the question of penalties would be determined at a later date.