Retail outlets penalised for exploiting “marginalised” overseas workers

The Fair Work Ombudsman has secured more than $134,000 in penalties against the former operators of a café and a retail outlet in the Melbourne CBD, after three overseas workers were paid as little as $11 an hour.

Photoplus Australia Pty Ltd, which formerly operated a mobile phone accessory and photography retail outlet, has been penalised $68,520 and Choi Brothers Pty Ltd, which formerly operated a café Bread Kingdom, has been penalised $55,404.

The penalties were imposed in the Federal Circuit Court after the companies admitted underpaying two employees at the Photoplus outlet and a third employee who worked at both Photoplus and Bread Kingdom a total of $44,950 for various periods of work in 2016. Seung-Geun Choi, who was an owner and sole director of both businesses at the time, was also penalised an additional $10,896 after admitting he was involved in record-keeping and pay slip contraventions.

Fair Work Ombudsman inspectors investigated after workers made underpayment allegations and found three workers had been paid flat rates of between $11 and $14 for all hours worked. Inspectors discovered a Chinese worker who was on a 417 working holiday visa and an international student from Taiwan were underpaid $6920 and $12,578 respectively for work at the Photoplus outlet. The third worker, a Chinese national who was on a 462 work and holiday visa, was underpaid $25,452 for work at both the Photoplus and Bread Kingdom outlets.

Under the applicable Awards, they were entitled to receive minimum rates as much as $19 per hour, plus casual loadings, for ordinary hours and higher rates for weekend and public holiday work. The workers have now been back-paid in full.

In his judgment on the matter, Judge Philip Burchardt found that the employees were “marginalised and disadvantaged workers” whose “disempowerment in the work place is self-evident”. He also described the underpayments as “very significant”, given that the employees received approximately only half of their entitlements.

The contraventions occurred despite the Fair Work Ombudsman identifying pay slip issues at Photoplus Australia during a proactive audit campaign in 2013 and providing the business with information on how to comply with these laws. Choi made a commitment at the time, on behalf of Photoplus Australia, to comply with those obligations.

Judge Burchardt found that the “[e]vents of 2013 should have put them on notice of the minimum obligations and caused the respondents to take steps to check and comply with them”. He also found that the contraventions relating to record keeping and pay slips were “plainly deliberate”. He found that the underpayment contraventions were “reckless” and that all other contraventions “should have been avoided”.

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