Fair Work cracks down on alleged underpayment of 10 abattoir workers

The Fair Work Ombudsman has commenced legal proceedings on behalf of 10 employees at a regional New South Wales abattoir, which it alleges were underpaid by more than $40,000.

According to the Ombudsman, the workers were underpaid amounts ranging from $347 to $10,257 between March 2011 and July 2013. Eight of the employees were Chinese nationals on short-term visas and two are Chinese immigrants employed full-time.

Labour hire company Raying Holding Pty Ltd and another individual are being taken to court for allegedly supplying the workers in question to the Primo Australia Scone Abattoir.

Fair Work alleges the employees supplied by Raying Holding were often required to work more than 38 hours a week, without being paid overtime or penalty rates.

In a statement Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James said while the alleged underpayments were rectified last year, legal action was taken because the abattoir workers were deemed to be vulnerable.

“The Fair Work Ombudsman is keen to ensure that overseas workers in Australia are treated with dignity and respect and accorded the same rights as local workers,” she said.

“We seek to guard against employer practices that deliberately take advantage of language difficulties, lack of knowledge of the law, unfamiliarity with government agencies and dependency created by the significant power imbalance when an overseas worker is reliant on the employer signing paperwork.”

Raying Holding faces penalties of up to $51,000 per breach, with a directions hearing listed for March 28 in Sydney.

Warwick Ryan, partner at Swaab Attorneys, says underpayment arises for a variety of reasons.

“In smaller businesses, it sometimes arises because the employers simply don’t have any understanding of their obligations to meet awards,” he told SmartCompany. “For foreign workers, there is that element of just having a job. They’re not going to ask too many questions.”

Ryan says underpayment of workers is a major problem because sometimes an employer is uncertain which award their staff should be covered by.

“I think the key is to simplify the awards system. It’s far too complex.”

In September last year, a Perth cleaning company was fined $343,860 for underpaying six cleaners – the largest penalty awarded by a court for a matter initiated by Fair Work. The employees, who came from places as far as Hong Kong and Ireland, were also reimbursed for more than $22,000 in underpaid wages.

According to Fair Work, almost $1.5 million in underpaid wages and entitlements were recovered for visa-holders last financial year.

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