Church of Scientology 'has to conform to labour laws'

The Sydney Morning Herald/September 17, 2011

The Church of Scientology has been found to be subject to Australian labour laws after an investigation into allegations it paid employees who were members of its clergy as little as $10 a week.

But elements of the draft report by the Fair Work Ombudsman - such as indications that allegations of slavery and human rights abuses would be referred to ''the relevant authority'' for further investigation - have been omitted from the final public version. Instead the public version says: ''Some claimed the use of unconscionable tactics by the CoS designed to retain their commitment.

"The Fair Work Ombudsman makes no findings in respect of those allegations, but advises that if workers providing services to religious or any other organisation consider that they are being subjected to intimidation or other illegal pressure to continue to provide their labour, they should contact police."

The report also gives the first real insight into the finances of the Australian arm of the controversial church, founded by the American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1952.

It reveals that at the end of 2009 the Church of Scientology, Australia, Inc, had a surplus in funds of $21,753,440 and total assets of $56,923,870. The church, which remains tax exempt after a 1983 High Court ruling that it was a religion, earned $11,670,384 in 2009 from the sale of ''spiritual counselling and religious training'' and a further $3,469,337 from ''sales of religious books and artefacts''.

That year it spent $2,248,357 on salaries and allowances.

The Ombudsman dismissed submissions from the church that the Fair Work Act did not apply because it ''is a religious entity … and there isn't any worker relationship or employer relationship''.

The Ombudsman's statement said documents and policies examined by Fair Work inspectors ''plainly contradicted'' this assertion, though it acknowledged that some of the labour provided by some of the complainants was voluntary.

The report was based on the evidence given by eight complainants who remain anonymous, and sparked by allegations raised in the Senate by Nick Xenophon, who in 2009 tabled a series of documents outlining claims of abuse by the church on its members, including forced abortion, forced labour, house arrest and using information gathered in counselling sessions to control its members' behaviour. The church continues to deny those allegations.

The investigation found allegations made by six of the complainants fell outside the six-year statute of limitations. But the Ombudsman states investigations are continuing into allegations raised by one other, while more people have come forward since the investigation began.

One witness told the Ombudsman he joined the church at the age of 14, signing the standard billion-year contract to join the Sea Organisation, as the church's clergy is known.

His parents assigned guardianship to the church and he soon found himself working from 9am until 6pm some days, but often until 10pm or even until 3am, seven days a week, for weekly pay of between $30 and $70. The church's Australian president, Vicki Dunstan, yesterday claimed the report's findings as a victory for Scientology.

A press release from the church said none of the complainants was ruled to be employees and none was ruled to be entitled to wages.

''Nearly two years since Senator Xenophon used parliamentary privilege to level these allegations against the church, no charges have been laid nor any other action taken by authorities,'' Ms Dunstan said.

She categorically denied the allegations of slavery and abuse of human rights mentioned in the draft report.

Steven Lewis, a lawyer for Slater and Gordon - which 15 months ago began preparations for a class action to recover unpaid and underpaid wages and entitlements - welcomed the findings, saying it reinforced the firm's view that many of the church's staff had been unpaid or underpaid. He said mainstream churches acknowledge that they have employees and pay them accordingly.

Senator Xenophon said the draft report's findings appeared to have been watered down and said it was likely many of the complaints would only be finally resolved in the courts.

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