Clothing store owners fined for allegedly hiring gang to intimidate employees
Three clothing store owners have been fined $20,000 each after allegedly hiring a gang member to intimidate former staff.
Neelam Ahuja, Chirag Ahuja and Rhythm Ahuja were directors of several clothing companies, which are all now in liquidation.
In October the trio were found by the Employment Relations Authority to have not paid staff the minimum wage, and four former employees were awarded $68,782.
Shortly before that hearing, a labour inspector told the authority two former staff, Kalpana Nandni and Renuka Kumar, had been threatened in an attempt to stop them from giving evidence.
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He told her and her husband that they should not attend an upcoming employment case and proceed with their complaint about wages owed, Nandni said.
"He did mention, 'look, you people are really in danger, some people are after you and if you do go to attend the case something bad could happen to you and it's better if you don't attend'."
Nandni said the man walked down the driveway and returned with two pictures of the family, which he said he had been given to him by the people who had hired the gang.
Police investigated the threats but closed the case because of a lack of evidence.
In her decision, authority member Eleanor Robinson said there was a "higher than simple requirement of probability" that either one or all of the three employers had organised for the man to visit Nandhi.
The unknown men who had threatened the women had intimate knowledge of the employment case, indicating they had been sent by someone involved, she said.
It was important the penalties imposed not only punished the directors, but also sent a strong message to others who may try to intimidate those giving evidence, Robinson said.
She ordered each of the three to pay $10,000 for each of the two counts of intimidation, with half to go to Nandni and Kumar and the remainder to the Crown.
Both the store owners and the former employees declined to comment, but the Ahujas' lawyer Greg Bennett said the decision was unfair and would be appealed.
The fines were excessive and his clients found the decision surprising, considering the lack of evidence, he said.
"As would be normal they're horrified such an amount has been awarded against them and they proclaim they're innocent of any wrongdoing.
"Certainly there was no direct evidence, police closed the case on the basis there was insufficient evidence or description of the perpetrator."
Labour Inspectorate regional manager Loua Ward welcomed the decision and said any attempts to obstruct an investigation would be taken seriously.
"The decision sends a strong message that the Labour Inspectorate will not tolerate any form of intimidation," she said.
"Safety is paramount and witnesses need to feel confident in coming forward so that the Labour Inspectorate can take action against unscrupulous employers who continue to take advantage of workers.
"It is in the public interest to impose penalties that not only punish employers who attempt to obstruct judicial processes, but also act as a deterrent to others who may contemplate engaging in such abhorrent behaviour."