Record $660,00 penalty for underpayment of worker

The Australian, August 3, 2017

A record $660,000 in penalties has been awarded against the former owner of a Melbourne fruit market and his company for not paying an Afghan refugee worker any wages for weeks.

Federal Circuit Court judge Philip Burchardt found that the worker, who spoke little English, had been underpaid $25,588 over four months, an “enormous amount for such a short time”.

Abdulrahman Taleb, the former owner-operator of the Sunshine Fruit Market in Mel­bourne’s west, was penalised $16,020 and his company Mhoney Pty Ltd penalised $644,000.

Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James said the $660,020 in penalties was the largest ever achieved as a result of the regulator’s litigation.

ACTU president Ged Kearney said the case was “a tragic story but it’s one of thousands across Australia right now”.

“Wage theft has become a business model with underpayments of workers, exploitation and dodgy workplace practices becoming the norm,’’ she said.

The worker left Afghanistan after his father and brother were killed by the Taliban, and his mother was killed by a suicide bomber. He fled to Pakistan ­before paying people-smugglers to get him to Australia.

In 2010, he boarded a boat in Indonesia and arrived in Christmas Island where he remained in detention for 10 months. He was assessed as a refugee, granted permanent residency and released into the community just before Christmas 2010.

The court found he was paid no wages for a number of weeks in 2012 and later received a flat rate of $10 an hour to a maximum of $120 per day. He should have been paid hourly rates of about $17 for normal hours, up to $35 an hour on weekends and up to $43 on public holidays under the retail award.

Judge Burchardt said Mr Taleb was the “mind and will” of the company who had been “taking advantage” of the worker.

“This was an egregious underpayment. It gave the respondents an unfair advantage in the competitive retail industry,’’ he said. “(The worker) was a vulnerable employee in that he was a recent arrival to Australia and totally lacked fluency in English, and could reasonably be understood to be most unlikely to be aware of any entitlements at law,” Judge Burchardt said.

He said the tenor of Mr Taleb’s contrition was unimpressive and he had not apologised to the worker.

He said much of his affidavit was dedicated to self−pity rather than contrition, “and if Mr Taleb is a significant figure in the Lebanese Muslim community in Melbourne, one might express a hope that the community would extend their admiration to someone perhaps more worthy of it than Mr Taleb”.

The previous record penalties of $532,910 were secured in February against the former owner-operator of an Albury cafe and his company, Rubee Enterprises Pty Ltd. That matter involved exploitation of five workers, including two visa holders.

Ms James said the new record penalties highlighted how “seriously the courts take unlawful behaviour which involves workers being taken advantage of and stripped of minimum wages and entitlements”.

“Employers who deliberately exploit vulnerable workers should be on notice that we will do everything in our power to hold you to account,’’ she said.