The Federal Circuit Court has ordered Touchpoint Media and its director to pay a combined total of $570,000 for the “deliberate” underpayment of young journalists and production staff.
The Queensland-based company and its director Laurence Bernard Ward have been ordered to back-pay 23 staff a total of $305,780 under the ruling, following legal action commenced by the Fair Work Ombudsman.
A further $264,924 fine has been levied for the underpayment, after the court found four of the workers were underpaid by more than $30,000 each between January 2015 and June 2016.
The company’s news websites cover regional Queensland and include the Charleville Plus More.
In delivering his judgment, Judge Tony Young said there was evidence Touchpoint Media sought out vulnerable employees, often university graduates, who were eager to enter the profession of journalism.
“I am satisfied that there was an element of exploitation involved with young employees that would have been less likely to occur with older or more experienced employees,” he said.
“As such, I am satisfied that the experience of employment by Touchpoint, and the consequent serious underpayment of many employees, was a bitter and humiliating experience.”
Touchpoint Media will pay $220,030 of the underpayment penalty, while Ward will be required to pay a further $44,604, notwithstanding back payments.
Court ‘threw the book’ at the business
Speaking to SmartCompany, workplace lawyer Athena Koelmeyer said the court has sought to make an example out of Touchpoint and its director, particularly in relation to exploiting vulnerable workers.
“They’ve really thrown the book at these guys,” she says.
Koelmeyer, managing director at Workplace Law, explains the penalty was around 70-80% of the maximum, which indicated the judge viewed the breaches as severe in nature.
It was also found Touchpoint and Ward breached workplace laws during the investigation by “knowingly providing false PAYG records” to the Fair Work Ombudsman, which overstated the amount employees had been paid.
Koelmeyer says the Fair Work Ombudsman is paying close attention to the welfare of vulnerable workers, particularly young people.
Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said in a statement on Thursday assistance requests from young workers are of “high priority”
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“Any employer tempted to underpay young workers for their own benefit should think again because we will do everything within our power to ensure such conduct is met with significant consequences,” she said.
Koelmeyer says it’s been over eight years since the introduction of the modern award regime and businesses that are not complying with the law, either deliberately or accidentally, are risking prosecution.
“You need to make sure this stuff is right,” she says.
SmartCompany contacted Touchpoint Media but did not receive a response prior to publication.