$230k in penalties over exploitation of migrant trolley collectors

The Fair Work Ombudsman has secured $230,638 in penalties against a trolley collection subcontractor for the exploitation of two migrant workers at Bendigo, in regional Victoria, and using false records to try to cover it up.

Jobanjeet Singh has been penalised $40,510 and his company Joban’s Trolley Collection Pty Ltd has been penalised a further $190,128, in the Federal Circuit Court.

Singh and his company underpaid two trolley collection workers a total of $29,031 over a period of just six months in 2015, which equated to an underpayment of almost 40 per cent of their total entitlements over the period.

The penalties are the result of an investigation and subsequent legal action by the Fair Work Ombudsman.

The two workers lodged requests for assistance in 2015 during the Fair Work Ombudsman’s Inquiry into the procurement of trolley collection services by Woolworths, which involved Fair Work inspectors visiting 130 Woolworths’ sites across Australia.

The workers were recent migrants from Afghanistan and Pakistan aged 31 and 28. They had recently arrived as refugees and been granted permanent residency. They had limited English language skills.

Joban’s Trolley Collection employed them to collect trolleys for Woolworths retails stores at the Bendigo Market Place shopping centre as part of a subcontract it had at the time with United Trolley Collections Pty Ltd. United Trolley Collection no longer holds any contracts with Joban’s Trolley Collection and Joban’s no longer operates at any Woolworths sites.

The Fair Work Ombudsman’s investigation revealed that the two workers had been paid rates ranging from $9.73 to $19.32 an hour.

This resulted in underpayment of their minimum hourly rates, shift-work loadings, overtime rates and penalty rates for weekend and public holiday work. They were also underpaid superannuation and annual leave entitlements.

The underpayments were rectified in full after the Fair Work Ombudsman commenced legal action.

During the investigation, Singh and his company knowingly provided Fair Work inspectors with false time-and-wages records that overstated the rates the two workers were paid.

While Singh gave evidence that “it was never my intention to exploit or harm the interests” of the workers, Judge Patrizia Mercuri found that Singh had “employed individuals with limited skills and knowledge of English… or capacity to enforce their rights”.

Judge Mercuri rejected Singh’s claims that he was “unaware” of his legal obligations and found that the contraventions were deliberate.

“His conduct in creating false records and ensuring that UTC did not become aware of his payment arrangements belies this explanation and suggests that he in fact was well aware that what he was doing was wrong,” Judge Mercuri said.

Judge Mercuri found that the provision of false records to the Fair Work Ombudsman was “a deliberate act to try and minimise the respondents’ contraventions of workplace laws”.

Judge Mercuri said that the penalties imposed should “send a message to employers in the trolley collection industry that failure to comply with their workplace obligations will have consequences”.

Judge Mercuri also found that there was a need for a penalty to deter Singh from future contraventions, noting that Singh had registered another company.

Acting Fair Work Ombudsman Kristen Hannah said that the Court’s decision sends a message that deliberate exploitation of vulnerable workers is completely unacceptable.

“Employers should be aware that we treat exploitation of migrant workers particularly seriously. We will not hesitate to pursue any business operator who seeks to engage in this type of exploitative conduct,” Ms Hannah said.

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