“Deliberate and conscious”: Business fined $144,000 after misleading ombudsman over underpayment

wage theft

A Victorian farm has been hit with $144,000 in fines over the underpayment of two Malaysian fruit pickers and an alleged cover-up involving false records.

The Federal Circuit Court ruled Zucco Farming shortchanged two bridging visa workers by $13,529 between 2015 and 2016.

The workers were paid a flat rate as low as $15.41 an hour but were entitled to at least $21.61 an hour under the Horticulture Award, the Court heard.

The Fair Work Ombudsman also alleged Zucco Farming underpaid the workers deliberately and then tried to cover up the crime by submitting false records.

Questions started being asked after one of the workers noticed his payslip was documenting his pay at $21 an hour.

“You pay me $16 right? … But my pay slip has $21,” the worker allegedly asked.

“I am not paying you $21 … I do that just for my bookwork,” his employer allegedly responded.

Finding the business “made deliberate and conscious decisions to underpay the employees”, Judge Anthony Kelly accepted the director tried to mislead the FWO.

“The nature of the contraventions and the circumstances in which they were committed are significant as evidencing the serious exploitation of employees and a deliberate falsification of records,” he said.

The penalty, described by judge Anthony Kelly as “heavy”, including a $120,000 fine against the business and a $24,000 penalty against its sole director.

The ruling caps off a case initiated back in 2017 and is a sizeable scalp for ombudsman Sandra Parker, who has been under pressure to crack down on wage theft in the horticulture sector.

“The deliberate and systematic underpayment of two vulnerable workers is precisely the sort of conduct we are targeting and trying to stamp out in the horticulture industry,” Parker said in a statement circulated on Thursday morning.

“Improving workplace compliance in the horticulture industry continues to be a priority for the Fair Work Ombudsman, and we urge any workers with concerns to contact us.”

The re-elected Morrison government is expected to introduce new laws to set up a national registration scheme for labour-hire operators in the horticulture sector.

It follows recommendations made by the Migrant Worker Taskforce earlier this year — a report which identified widespread worker exploitation in the sector.

Zucco Farming could not be reached for comment.

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