Church of Scientology faces class action

ABC News, Australia/September 16, 2011

The Church of Scientology is facing a class action over claims it underpaid former workers.

On Tuesday night, ABC1's Lateline revealed that a draft report by the Fair Work Ombudsman had found the church had wrongly classified employees as volunteers.

Law firm Slater and Gordon has also been looking into the claims and says under the Fair Work Act, those employees and ex-employees are owed large sums of money in wages, holiday pay, overtime and superannuation.

Slater and Gordon commercial litigation lawyer Steven Lewis says the firm has been investigating evidence from some of the church's former workers.

"We have undertaken an investigation into that and we've come to the conclusion that indeed they were employees and they're entitled to be paid wages, back wages and other entitlements including superannuation under the Fair Work Act," he said.

Only those who worked for the Church of Scientology in the last six years are eligible to participate in any class action due to the statute of limitations.

Mr Lewis says evidence that some workers were getting as little as $10 a week means back-pay claims could be substantial.

"Potentially it could be for very large sums of money," he said.

"In addition, the court has the authority under the Fair Work Act to impose a civil penalty in respect of each breach of the Act."

Jordan Anderson, who featured in the Four Corners program that led to the Fair Work ombudsman's inquiry, will be part of the class action.

Her mother Liz was one of the first people to talk to Slater and Gordon.

"This whole issue in relation to workplace relations has all come about because of Jordan's treatment in the Sea Organisation where she worked for years - 9:00 in the morning till 10:00 at night - with little or no time off on a gruelling schedule," she said.

"I was just driven because I knew that something was wrong. There is no way a person, a minor, should be treated like that." 'Inaccurate claims'

Lateline approached the Church of Scientology for an interview but they turned down the request, saying the church has said all it needs to in relation to the Fair Work ombudsman's draft findings.

In a statement, the church told the ABC that it rejects the "inaccurate claims made by a handful of embittered former members".

In an interview with ABC News on Wednesday, church spokeswoman Virginia Stewart compared their workers to volunteer fire fighters.

"For example, in Australia the rural fire brigade has over 75,000 volunteers around Australia," she said.

"These are people who very strongly feel about helping their community and it's the same with Scientology volunteers.

"We're doing work on drug rehabilitation and promoting human rights, so the majority of people who help our church actually work a job during the day and get paid a normal wage, and then they volunteer additional time for the church."

But Mr Lewis from Slater and Gordon says the workers were treated as employees.

"These people were forced to sign contracts. The contracts refer to them in many instances as employees," he said.

"They were given pay slips, they were given group certificates; all the documentation points to the fact they were employees and they weren't paid the minimum wage.

"These people were employees and have rights under the law."

Lateline understands the Fair Work ombudsman's final report into to the Church of Scientology will be released to the complainants and the church on Friday.

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