Spots of Time

September 02, 2003

Escape From Australia

Immigration raided the Sydney offices of the American company I worked for just one week before I was due to leave the country. To say the experience shook a former coworker of mine (also American) would be an understatement. But, hey, maybe he was overreacting? What IS the proper way to respond to the news that six Australian immigration officers, asking after your company, are in the lobby and blocking all the exits to the building?

To recap for those of you who missed Part One, the start-up I worked for in Sydney and its American partner dissolved ties, closing offices in Singapore, India, China, New Zealand and Australia and letting go all but four employees (including the CEO). Due to a paperwork snafu, the company refused to pay me for my last invoice, a total of several thousand Australian dollars. My attempts to reason with the venture firm controlling the funds were fruitless. I was advised and cautioned by most involved to let the matter drop and move on with my travels - and well, I almost did.

Almost.

Instead, I hired a lawyer.

You see, the situation became bigger than just the money. There was principle behind it. A company that advertises its mission statement as "Our Word is Our Bond" and then tries to get out of paying money rightfully earned, with its CEO lying to my face and playing dirty, well, that is just wrong. And, though I realized I had an uphill battle to fight, I knew that win or lose, at least this way I will know that I did everything I could and didn't just cower in the corner, another victim of the system.

The battle started with a letter which lead to some phone calls and after a few weeks my lawyer informed me that the company was now trying to get money out of me! Wait a minute - they owe me money and they expect me to pay? Unsure of what to do, I asked for his advice. In his perfect South African accent he said:

"Melanie, I would advice you to leave Australia as soon as possible."

Excuse me?

"Once you are gone I can get more aggressive, but if you are here the company can make a lot of trouble for you - they have already threatened to call immigration and the taxation board."

So, here I sit in a guesthouse in Bangkok, mulling over the nine months, one week and five days I spent in the land Down Under. Don't get my wrong - Bangkok and Asia were part of the travel plan - but I had rather hoped to leave of my own accord as opposed to rushing for fear of immigration detainment.

Before I left, an Aussie friend said to me, "It's a shame that this experience has tainted your time in Australia." I agreed with her, but later wondered - had it really?

Sure, being legally advised to leave the country wasn't EXACTLY how I pictured moving on, and potentially entering into a legal suit also wasn't on my list of "Things To Do In Oz." But, at the same time, I never thought I would do corporate work in Sydney, go to Darwin or the Top End, see two koala bears duking it out in a tree, camp next to a crocodile-infested billabong, get hit on by my surf instructor and about 500 other things that weren't part of my original "plan."

So, while I'll admit that I'm not sure I have much of a chance of getting back my money, I've decided not to stress or worry about it - and DEFINATELY not let it affect the wonderful memories I have of my time living, working and traveling in Australia. As a sign in the MRT (subway) in Singapore said:

"If you cannot help but worry, understand that worrying can not help you either." Pretty good advice in my book.

Oh, and regarding the immigration raid in Sydney? Well, after rightfully freaking out, my co-worker set up a meeting with one of the immigration officers. A nightmare of inaction on the part of the American company, they finally put him in touch with two lawyers, both of whom accompanied him to the meeting. The officer looked a bit surprised to see my co-worker flanked with representation and reiterated that their meeting was "simply an educational forum to update your company on the Australian policies of hiring non-resident workers." An educational forum huh? Oh, well that makes sense - OF COURSE you would need to send six officers after one person - for the sake of EDUCATION.

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Next week: "Asia for Beginners"