$3 an hour then sacked via email: Filipina cleaners 'exploited' by Australian employer

She came to Australia to start a new life. Instead, Maricar​ Virata​ says, she soon found herself working up to 18 hours a day, was on call 24 hours a day, and was paid as little as $3 an hour for her troubles. Then she was sacked by email when she went home to the Philippines on holiday.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has launched court action to prosecute an employer it says underpaid four Filipino workers on 457 visas, including Ms Virata, by more than $260,000 between 2012 and 2015.

Maricar Virata, at home in Darwin, found herself working up to 18 hours a day and getting paid as little as $3 an hour. Maricar Virata, at home in Darwin, found herself working up to 18 hours a day and getting paid as little as $3 an hour.  Photo: Glenn Campbell

Their employer, Michael Parkes – who co-owns the Comfort Inn in Halls Gap, and the Quality Inn Country Plaza in Queanbeyan, with his wife Rowena – told Fairfax he would fight the case in the Federal Circuit Court next month.

He said "a lot of lies" had been told but he would not elaborate.

Late last year, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) found in Ms Virata's favour, with deputy president Val Gostencnik​ describing the employment conditions at the Grampians motel as "to say the least, unusual".

"On any view it was exploitative," Mr Gostencnik said in his ruling, which paved the way for the motel owners to be prosecuted.

Ms Virata told Fairfax she had come to Australia in 2013 with her partner Rolando "Bobby" Gagate, to take up a full-time job (40 hours a week) with the Parkes, for $55,000 a year plus superannuation. The couple were expected to share Ms Virata's wage.

"At the beginning, yes, we were happy about it," she said. "Definitely it was way more than we were getting in the Philippines."

But in the first two weeks she found herself working from 7am to 1am the next day, she said. She routinely worked at least 13 hours a day.

After reception was closed, the phone was diverted to her room, effectively meaning she was on call 24 hours a day, Ms Virata says.

In early 2014, when she and Mr Gagate were on holiday in the Philippines, she was summarily sacked by email.

Law firm Ashurst Australia, who has been acting pro bono for Ms Virata, took her case to the Fair Work Commission, which last year found in Ms Virata's favour.

Mr Parkes disputed Ms Virata's version of events at the FWC, saying he had a valid reason for sacking Ms Virata: the couple frequently argued and their relationship was "becoming exceedingly chaotic". 

But Mr Gostencnik found Mr Parkes to be "an unreliable witness", and ordered him to pay Ms Virata $27,500 in compensation for unlawful sacking.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has added another couple – Rhea Monleon​ and Michael Tan – to the claim, which it estimates now totals $261,549.61

The matter has been listed in the Federal Circuit Court on May 12 for directions. The office of the Fair Work Ombudsman would not comment, but said it was likely to prepare a media release on this matter "at some point in the near future".

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