A married couple who were on call overnight as residential caretakers at a UniLodge student accommodation block of units allegedly received just $108 in net pay for a year’s work after “free” rent was deducted from their combined salary.
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Apart from when they were on holidays, the Sri Lankan couple, Kasun Rajapaksha and his wife Sandeepani Warnakulasooriya, said they had little opportunity to go out at night together for more than six years in the caretaker job.
“We were expected to be at work all the time – every night, every morning, 24/7 on weekends – we were not allowed to leave,” Mr Rajapaksha said. “It felt like a prison.”
In a statement of claim for more than $700,000 in unpaid wages, the couple say they accepted the shared job after being promised a combined annual salary of $80,000, a free phone and free accommodation, including water and electricity. They were required to live at the 23-storey block of 270 units on Lonsdale Street in Melbourne.
The statement of claim lodged on their behalf with the Federal Court alleges that most of their salary was deducted for purported “rent”. This left them with a net salary of just $108 plus $1886.04 in superannuation from September 14, 2010 until October 25, 2011.
The couple say that apart from some holiday breaks they provided a 24-hour point of contact on weekends at the student accommodation centre from December 2009 until they left in April 2016. At least one of them had to work on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 5pm until 8.30am the following day.
The statement of claim says the couple were jointly paid a total of $85,784.40 gross plus superannuation between October 26, 2011 and April 5, 2016. But $74,336 was allegedly deducted from their wages for “rent”, leaving them with a net amount of $8596.40 plus superannuation of $8062.70 for that period.
Kasun Rajapaksha and his wife Sandeepani Warnakulasooriya say they have “lost some of the best years of our lives to UniLodge”. Photo: Joe Armao
Their duties included regular checks of common areas on every floor, some cleaning, responding to noise complaints, lockouts or emergencies, co-ordinating trade maintenance, completing daily logs and reports, performing light maintenance, removing furniture and organising charity pick-ups.
They claim to have regularly worked more than 125 hours between them each week.
A spokeswoman for UniLodge said it had no comment at this stage. Photo: Joe Armao
“We lost some of the best years of our lives to UniLodge. We’ll never get those years back,” Mr Rajapaksha said.
“We were expected to be at work all the time – every night, every morning, 24/7 on weekends – we were not allowed to leave.”
We were expected to be at work all the time – every night, every morning, 24/7 on weekends – we were not allowed to leave.
‘I don’t know how we survived’
Mr Rajapaksha said he and his wife did not realise at the time how the system worked in Australia.
“We kept trusting that UniLodge would look after us the way they promised,” he said. “Now I know better and I can’t believe that UniLodge treated us so badly.”
Trades Hall Secretary Luke Hilakari said the case was ”close to slavery”. Photo: Pat Scala
His wife said looking back, “I don’t know how we survived”.
“But we did, and now we’re speaking out, because nobody should go through what we went through,” Ms Warnakulasooriya said.
The couple’s lawyer, Carita Kazakoff, from the Young Workers Centre in Melbourne, said they were claiming more than $700,000 in unpaid wages. She said they had come from a desperate situation in Sri Lanka and just wanted to set themselves up for a life in Australia.
“So they just went along with it, thinking that was the way things are done here and that their pay would just get sorted out,” she said.
“This is a story of gross exploitation of two very vulnerable workers, by a large corporation who should know better.”
The Secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, Luke Hilakari, said it was hard to believe “we’re hearing stories like this, in 2017, in Australia”.
“This is as close to slavery as I’ve ever seen in my time in the union movement,” he said.
“Every Australian should be outraged and angry that a business can treat other human beings this way.”
A spokeswoman for UniLodge said it had no comment at this stage.
“The documents were received late last week and are currently with our legal representatives for consideration,” she said.
“UniLodge is a reputable organisation who fulfil their legal employment workplace obligations under the current legislative requirements.”