Last year, Hassan Jaber was living in Australia on a temporary protection visa and driving an Uber to make ends meet.
When the pandemic hit and JobKeeper was introduced he went to his tax agent to ask if he was eligible.
“I remember that it took about 35 minutes talking to Australian Taxation Office (ATO),” Mr Jaber told ABC Radio Melbourne.
“They said, ‘You know what, submit the application – if you are eligible we will pay for you, if you are not we will refuse it.'”
While some of his friends on international student visas were knocked back, Mr Jaber’s application was accepted.
But nine months later he received a letter from the ATO saying he had not been eligible for JobKeeper and that he owed the department $27,900.
“When I received that I was very stressed,” Mr Jaber said.
“I didn’t accept it … because this is not my mistake – the ATO said [I was] eligible.”
With the help of his tax agent he submitted an objection.
After two reviews the ATO agreed to exercise their discretion, meaning Mr Jaber no longer had to pay back any of the JobKeeper funding he received.
ATO trying to recover payments
Mr Jaber is not the only one.
Now a community organiser at the Migrant Workers Centre, he has helped another Uber driver contest an ATO request to repay $13,500 he received through the JobKeeper scheme.
“He was crying because he does not speak English, he’s not reading, he’s not writing – he said, ‘I did not do any mistake,'” Mr Jaber said.
“The question is … how many people now are struggling with this repayment?”
Who was eligible?
An ATO spokesperson said in statement that since January 2021 the department had been undertaking compliance reviews in cases where there were eligibility concerns.
“We have found that some individuals have not met the JobKeeper residency requirements and were not eligible to receive JobKeeper payments,” the statement said.
Under the legislation a person only qualified for JobKeeper if they were a resident of Australia under the Social Security Act 1991, or a resident for tax purposes and the holder of a Special Category visa.
But because the scheme was rushed through, many people were confused about which visa categories would be accepted.
“In determining whether repayment will be sought, we consider factors such as whether the entity has made an honest mistake, for example where an employer has relied on the information provided to them by their employee as to their residency status,” the statement said.
“This factor may not apply where a sole trader is claiming for themselves as an eligible business participant, with knowledge of their own residency status.”