A worker in his 60s has allegedly been underpaid almost $30,000 by a regional Queensland car rental company, as legal experts warn businesses over targeting vulnerable workers.
The Fair Work Ombudsman has launched court proceedings against Rockhampton business Central Car and Truck Rental, which trades as Thrifty Car Rental, and the company director John Featherstone.
The car rental business allegedly underpaid an employee, who was aged 62 when his employment was terminated in 2012, $28,828.13 in wages and annual leave entitlements between June 2007 and August 2012.
The FWO claim the underpayments occurred through the failure to pay correct minimum rates of pay, weekend penalty rates, public holiday rates, overtime rates and annual leave entitlements.
SmartCompany contacted Thrifty Rockhampton, but no comment was available.
The court action comes as late last week research was released revealing a third of people aged 45 had experienced workplace discrimination because of their age and 13% had been denied training, promotion, equal pay or suffered derogatory comments.
M+K Lawyers principal Andrew Douglas told SmartCompany older Australian workers are particularly vulnerable.
“There is a large group of workers over 50 who have been released into the workforce in the past few years since many don’t have viable superannuation and they’re just trying to earn enough pocket money to get through. These workers are vulnerable to being caught on the peripheral of small business,” he says.
Workplace relations lawyer Peter Vitale told SmartCompany workers over the age of 50 are finding it more difficult to secure employment and when they do were generally less likely to make complaints about mistreatment.
“Speaking anecdotally, when confronted by discrimination, particularly at the recruitment level, most older people don’t issue a complaint about it, they look somewhere else.
“I don’t think we’ve seen enough information to suggest there is a pattern of older workers being exploited, but there does seem to be a reluctance to hire older workers,” he says.
Douglas says SMEs are the “least educated” about workplace law in Australia, although most employers will think they are paying the correct rates and have tried to find out the right information.
When it comes to businesses paying worker the correct wages, Douglas says overwhelmingly most cases don’t reach the courts because most businesses will act to rectify the mistake as soon as they are notified by the ombudsman, but there are two main reasons businesses continue to make mistakes – a lack of education and increased financial pressure.
“There are more complex workplace laws, but very little money is spent on teaching people. The help lines which exist have been scaled back and the capacity to find out information is reducing.
“Increasingly, Australia is headed toward larger players being dominant in each sector, such as with Coles and Woolworths. Small businesses are working around the clock to stay profitable,” he says.
Late last year the FWO revealed the 10 most common excuses made by bosses for underpaying staff, with the most common excuses being “that’s all they’re worth” and “I can’t afford to pay every entitlement”.
Thrifty Car Rental in Rockhampton faces penalties of up to $33,000 per breach and the company director could be fined $6600 per breach of workplace laws, and with a number of other company offices in the region, the ombudsman hopes this case will act as a deterrent.
Vitale says when determining a penalty the courts take into account a range of factors.
“In this case, significantly, the underpayment occurred over a long period of time and the employer appears not to have considered, or at least failed to rectify the underpayments, and these are the sorts of circumstances which tend to attract penalties at the higher end.
“In this case the ombudsman has flagged they will be arguing strongly because there is an important deterrence factor,” he says.
The case is scheduled for Wednesday June 26, 2013 in Brisbane’s Federal Circuit Court.