The Australian government deported tech startup Disrupt's co-founder for not picking fruit

The Disrupt team, with Chris Bailey on the left and Gary Elphick in the middle.

The co-founder of one of Telstra’s Muru-D accelerator graduates has been deported by the Australian Border Force after he lied about completing a mandatory three-month fruit picking stint as part of his visa requirement.

Chris Bailey, who founded Disrupt with another British-born citizen, Gary Elphick, was arrested last week after returning to Australia from the USA, where he was trying to establish an American office and manufacturing partnerships.

Australian Border Force officers questioned him on his return and Bailey was detained for allegedly lying about picking fruit to extend his working holiday visa. He was then kept at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre for two days before being sent back to the UK.

Bailey’s Disrupt co-founder Gary Elphick wrote about his partner’s deportation on LinkedIn overnight.

“When our COO arrived back to Sydney he was pulled aside by Border Force, subsequently held in a detention centre/prison for two days before being deported to the UK, leaving his car, house, family, and most importantly our company here in Sydney,” Elphick wrote.

“Why? Because as a start-up the government refuses to recognise us a business (for the purpose of sponsoring highly skilled individuals on temporary work visas), despite the fact that he has been personally approved already. The advice from immigration that his only opportunity to work on Disrupt is to first ‘add value to the economy’ by picking bananas for three months? And even then he would only be allowed to work here for six months. Sorry, What?”

Speaking to Business Insider, Elphick said Bailey went through the same process as an established business, and had already been approved as a highly skilled migrant for a consultancy company.

“The next stage is to get the business approved, they unfortunately do not recognise startups as businesses in this sense and thus Disrupt is not allowed to sponsor Chris,” he said.

“His only visa options left were a working holiday visa, which required him to pick fruit for three months in order to add value to the economy and enable him to stay for six months.

“This wouldn’t have solved the issue, just pushed it out six months in the hope the government would introduce a new visa class that recognised start-ups as legitimate businesses.”

The duo admit Bailey was in the wrong and have accepted the consequences, but say that it’s “a sad day that he was forced into a corner to do so in order to grow a start-up”.

He also added that while Border Force at the airport treated Bailey with a great amount of respect, staff at Villawood detention centre took a far harder line, confiscating his phone and denying him any phone calls. Attempts by Elphick and Bailey’s family to check on his welfare were rebuffed by detention centre staff.

In his LinkedIn post, Elphick raised problems around the Turnbull government’s current immigration policy when it comes to small companies and the ideas boom. The financial turnover of Disrupt does not meet the government’s “business” criteria under the Migration Act, although it employs eight people. That means it does not qualify to sponsor highly skilled individuals on temporary work visas.

“Whilst I have my own personal pain, I’m more concerned about the long-term negative impact immigration has and will have on the Australian tech scene with other companies facing similar challenges: How can they bring in highly skilled individuals from countries with more developed tech eco-systems to work in Australian start-ups?” Elphick wrote.

“The government recognised the skills shortage in Australia a number of year ago when they recognised 457 visas, if start ups and innovation are now a focus why can’t they see the skills shortage and address it?” he said.

“We as Australia can attract great talent with a great economy, amazing beaches and a great way of life but currently we physically can’t bring them here to work.”

Ironically, the duo were approached by the immigration department last year to consult on what an entrepreneur’s visa should look like.

Australian Border Force, Innovation minister Christopher Pyne, and Telstra have all been approached for comment. Minister Pyne’s office referred us to Immigration minister Peter Dutton’s office – we’ll update this story as soon as we hear back.

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