Three Auckland clothing store owners have been ordered to pay $20,000 each for allegedly hiring Black Power members to intimidate witnesses in an employment dispute.
Neelam Ahuja, Chirag Ahuja, and Rhythm Ahuja, were last month ordered by the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) to pay $68,783 in unpaid wages and holiday pay owed by their companies to former employees.
During the ERA's investigation, two witnesses claimed they were intimidated by gangsters who warned them not to show up at the ERA's hearing.
That resulted in a subsequent investigation, the results of which were made public today.
According to the ERA's decision, former Naari Collections Limited employee Kalpana Nandni was at home on the night of October 3 last year when a man came to the door.
Her husband, Nitesh Prasad, answered and found a hooded man with numerous tattoos on his face, including Black Power across his cheeks and nose.
"Mr Prasad said he told him and Ms Nandni that she should not be making trouble with her old employer. The man had explained that Black Power had been paid money to threaten Ms Nandni," the ERA decision said.
The man told them that other members of his gang had believed they should physically assault the couple, however, the man said he did not think that was the right thing to do.
He told them specific details about the case and presented them with pictures of Nandni and her family.
"Although the man who had visited them did not hurt them, she was very frightened to think that her family might be hurt by gang members," the decision said.
Before he left, the man instructed Nandni to call her old boss and let him know that the visit had occurred. He also said he'd be returning the following night.
Nandni said she called Rhythm Ahuja, who denied knowing what she was talking about.
However, she advised Nandni that "she should take care of her family and she should not go to the police because 'they could not help people against thinks like Black Power who could do anything to people'."
The other witness, Renuka Kumar, said she received a phone threat from someone
claiming to be a Black Power member on October 4.
"The man had used profane language during the call and told her that she should withdraw her case from the Labour Department. The man gave her details about her car registration number, where her car was parked, and he knew her home address."
Both parties gave statements to police but the Ahujas were not charged.
However, ERA member Eleanor Robinson said there was enough evidence to uphold the witnesses' complaints.
"I am satisfied that my investigation was obstructed by the fact that the applicant witnesses, Ms Nandni and Ms Kumar, were placed under unnecessary and undue pressure in the giving of their evidence as a result of the intimidatory contacts on 3 and 4 October 2016," she said.
"I find that Neelam, Chirag and Rhythm Ahuja were responsible for that pressure being applied, and that they subverted or pre-empted the effective application of the dispute resolution process in this case."
The defendants were ordered to pay penalties of $20,000, with half to go to the victims and the other to the Crown.
"I consider it necessary and in the public interest to impose penalties which not only punishes Neelam, Chirag and Rhythm Ahuja, but which will additionally act as a deterrent to others who may contemplate engaging in such behaviour."
As the case may constitute contempt of the ERA, the Solicitor General was notified.
The Ahujas' lawyer, Greg Bennett, said his clients maintained they had not been responsible for any witness intimidation and would be appealing the matter to the Employment Court.
Labour Inspectorate regional manager Loua Ward said safety was paramount and witnesses needed to feel confident in coming forward so the inspectorate could take action against employers who took 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."