Spots of Time

July 15, 2003

Our Word Is Our Bond

One week ago I renewed my tourist visa for Australia. Looking through the form, I checked a steady stream of "no" when asked questions regarding issues I'd ever had in entering foreign countries - ever being denied a visa, ever being removed from a country, ever entering a country illegally, etc. I was clean - no black spots on this record. I paid my $195 dollar renewal fee, got a new stamp in my passport and was on my way.

Less than a week later, I found out there was a good chance I was dirty. And, it seemed, the only way to protect myself and my passport from a permanent black mark was to let the corporate world take advantage of me financially - a pawn in the chess game of international business. As I write this, I'm in the middle of a battle for the money I was promised. I'm over my head and I know it, so I'm spilling the story - and hope that someone out there might have a bit of advice for me.

Unlike other tales of travel misfortune, which are horrible at the time but end up being quite funny later, this one will not make you laugh. You see, life is never as simple as one might like to imagine. Just when you think you have a good thing going, you realize it is not just black and white, right and wrong, or cut and dried. Sometimes you get screwed over in a bad way. Walking the streets of Sydney today I passed the FCUK flagship store. Looking inside at the T-shirts, I realized that those shirts illustrated exactly how I felt at that moment in time - FCUKED.

Most of you are aware that in February I landed a contracting job in Sydney. I was hired to work for a start up that was staffed by a well-known American company and financed by an Australian venture firm. What most of you don't know is that the job ended - suddenly - just a few weeks ago - and the company is refusing to pay me for work I've already done.

Unbeknownst to me, and while I was traveling around Australia, the start-up was undergoing a major reorganization. In the space of a week, they closed down the offices in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, New Zealand and Beijing, and laid off 90% of the staff. The start-up was effectively absorbed back into the US parent company, with a skeleton staff of just four people left in Sydney to run all the accounts in the Asia Pacific region.

Needless to say, I was one of the 90% laid off. In truth, I was not too fussed by this announcement. After all, this was just a temporary gig for me anyway. I expressed my regrets to the CEO, emailed my last invoice and began planning the next phase of my trip. Though I was a bit annoyed that no one told me what was going on sooner - I was only made aware a few days before my scheduled "return to work" date - there was nothing I could do so I went ahead with my travels, returning to Sydney to pack up the belongings I'd left at my apartment.

Later I found out from the CEO that the company had "closed its books" and they were unaware I had an outstanding invoice. He expressed the company's regrets, but said they would be unable to pay me - "a line had to be drawn." I was in speechless - this was not an insignificant amount of money - and besides that - I worked the days and deserved to be paid for them. He said that because my invoice was not received earlier, there was nothing that could be done - that I had been notified by email to turn in all invoices. I told him that I had been unable to access email, a fact I had written to him about in early June - asking him to write to me at my hotmail account. He ignored what I said and again stated that his hands were tied and there was nothing he could do. The amount owed? Several thousand US dollars.

Though first I was stunned and unsure of what to do, I eventually came to my senses and appealed to the CEO of the Australian venture company (my CEO's boss). My appeal fell on deaf, unsympathetic and dishonest ears - a shock since the company's mission statement (published on their Web site) places Integrity ("Our Word Is Our Bond") as its first priority. Bullshit. The investor maintained that since I didn't get my invoice in on time, and I was contacted regarding the invoice, there was nothing they could do. When I told him that I had proof to show I was unable to access my email and had communicated that to the company, he ignored me and said he could only go on what my CEO had said. Which led me to believe I'd been thrown under the bus by my own boss.

Normally, this would be a cut and dried situation in which I could threaten legal action - after all, I was working under a contact and since the company was not in liquidation (bankruptcy) they would have to pay me. However, there is a wild card. My work visa.

When I started working for the company I was still on my original working holiday visa - no problem. However, as I knew it would run out after my first month on the job, I asked the CEO about what I needed to do to keep working for the company. He said it was not an issue, as I was an independent contractor. The work I was doing for him could be done from anywhere - Bali, the US, France, etc - hence, I didn't really need a work visa. I was a bit skeptical, but not knowing the laws myself and being seduced by the paycheck, I trusted the CEO. After all, not only was he a former lawyer, but he was an American who had been living and working in Australia - running Australian companies no less - for the past 10 years.

As LeeAnn Rimes sings, "Should have known better but I didn't and I can't go back."

In desperation, I contacted the offices of the organization that first helped me get a working holiday visa in Australia. After telling them my tale, they also agreed it was cut and dried - except for the visa - a technicality they were unsure about as well, but were willing to look into - keeping my name out of it. I told them to find out what they could but - if push came to shove and my travel record/passport could in any way be "dirtied" - I would abandon my pursuit of the money. They promised total anonymity.

So now I sit and wait. I can't leave Sydney or make concrete plans until I have a final answer one way or another. I'm furious at myself for not checking out the work visa issues, for not protecting myself from a situation like this, and for trusting my boss who said it was all ok. At this point, the money isn't even my primary objective. I want revenge. Not that I will get it - I have too much to risk and travel is too important to me. Which they (the American company, the Australian start up and the Australian venture company) are counting on. Because they are even more dirty than I am.

In the middle of this mess I found out that the American company has also placed multiple US employees in the Asia Pacific without proper work visas - some of them on the same travel visa any of you would get if you decided to come to Australia on a two week holiday. If caught, the employees risk deportation as well as black marks on their passports. I'm not sure what the US company risks, but after what I've seen happen in Australia, I don't believe that they really care. The job market in the US still isn't great - I'm sure they could find replacements in a heartbeat. After all, what 20-something wouldn't jump at the chance to work overseas for a big American company?