Fair Work takes action over unpaid backpacker wages

The Australian, November 16, 2017

The Fair Work Ombudsman has taken its first contempt of court action, alleging a Queensland tour operator contravened a freezing order by transferring $41,000 into a family trust account without paying $30,000 owed to former employees.

The Federal Circuit Court made the freezing orders against Leigh Alan Jorgensen, the owner-operator of Cairns company, Trek North Tours, in 2015 preventing any dispersion of assets held by him or the company.

The orders were to apply until such time that penalties and back-payments from litigation relating to the underpayment of wages were complied with.

The court had fined Trek North $55,000 and Jorgensen $12,000 after the company failed to adhere to compliance notices requiring five overseas backpackers on 417 working holiday visas be reimbursed almost $30,000 in underpaid wages and entitlements.

Neither Tek North nor Jorgensen paid the amounts owed by the due date, and he told Fair Work inspectors the backpackers “would not get a cent” in back pay.

He indicated he was prepared to bankrupt the company to avoid paying the court penalties and money owed to the backpackers from Hong Kong, Italy, Taiwan and the Netherlands.

The freezing orders were sought after the ombudsman got information suggesting Jorgensen was preparing to shift assets from Trek North to a new company.

The ombudsman alleged that in August 2015, Jorgensen committed contempt of court when he contravened the freezing order against his company by transferring $41,035 from two company accounts into his family trust account.

Mr Jorgensen has paid the penalty imposed on him, resulting in the freezing order against him being lifted.

Acting Fair Work Ombudsman Kristen Hannah said the agency was committed to ensuring all workers receive their lawful entitlements.

The backpackers were underpaid when they worked for Trek North for periods of up to four months in 2013 and 2014.

The company operates tours to the Daintree and Cape Tribulation, the Great Barrier Reef and Kuranda