Accountants pay for staff rip-off

The Australian, November 18, 2017

Accountants have been put on ­notice after the national workplace watchdog won landmark legal action against an accounting firm for helping an ­employer ­client exploit a vulnerable worker.

The Federal Circuit Court fined Ezy Accounting 123 $53,880 after finding the Victorian firm ­facilitated underpayments by ­client Japanese fast-food operator Blue Impression.

Blue Impression has been fined $115,706 after admitting it underpaid two Taiwanese workers at its Hanaichi QV outlet in Melbourne’s CBD a total of $9549.

Ezy Accounting 123 provided payroll services for Blue Impres­sion and processed wages for one of the two underpaid workers ­despite knowing the rates the worker was being paid were below lawful minimums.

Both workers, who were in Australia on 417 working holiday visas, were paid flat rates as low as $16.50 an hour.

The Fair Work Ombudsman had previously put Blue Impres­sion and Ezy on notice of their ­obligations under workplace laws.

Ezy argued in court that the worker “was not Ezy’s employee” and that “Ezy did not exploit (the employee) in his work”.

But judge John O’Sullivan said that it was a “circumstance of ­aggravation” that Ezy had been “knowingly involved in conduct that constitutes illegality”.

“Ezy was not subject to direction by (Blue Impression) as an employee,” Judge O’Sullivan said.

“Ezy was involved in a relationship with (Blue Impression) where it provided payroll services. As such it must put compliance with the law ahead of business interests.”

He found that the two workers were vulnerable and had been “the victim of exploitation”.

Blue Impression was previously audited in 2014 by the ­ombudsman and “put on notice of its workplace obligations” after it was found to have underpaid 12 employees a total of $8800.

Ezy was also informed of minimum award rates at the time of the audit, as it helped the company to calculate and rectify the wage underpayments.

Earlier this month, the ombudsman used accessorial liability laws to secure a $21,760 penalty against the human resources manager of a restaurant in NSW for her role in facilitating the wide-scale exploitation of overseas workers.

Acting Fair Work Ombudsman Kristen Hannah said the two legal actions sent a clear message that the agency was prepared to use accessorial liability laws to hold parties involved in the ­exploitation of vulnerable workers to account.

“The accessorial liability laws extend not only to culpable ­­in-house managers at businesses that exploit their employees, but also to external advisers who facilitate the underpayment of workers,” Ms Hannah said.

“External business advisers need to understand that they must put compliance with the law above their own personal interests — or face serious consequences.

“The courts have made it clear that if you are knowingly involved in the exploitation of workers, you can face significant penalties. These types of trusted advisers must explain the rules to their clients … and not become involved in breaches of the law themselves.”