The former operators of two juice outlets in Victoria have been hit with penalties from the Federal Court for deliberately exploiting employees, some of whom were under the age of 18.
Skypic Group Pty Ltd and Skypac Group Pty Ltd were penalised with $161,988.75 and $80,325, respectively. The group operated Hello Juice outlets in shopping centres at Geelong and Werribee until April 2019 and March 2020, respectively.
Victorian woman Hua Gong, who was the general manager of both stores, had been penalised an additional $34,616.
During an auditing activity, the Fair Work Ombudsman found that employees had been paid low, flat rates, resulting in underpayment of the ordinary hourly rates, casual loadings and penalty rates for weekend and public holiday work they were entitled to under the Fast Food Industry Award 2010. Some employees were paid as low as $10 per hour.
Ms Gong and Skypac Group Pty Ltd also breached laws relating to cash-back arrangements on two separate occasions by requesting a worker aged in her 30s at the Werribee store to pay amounts totalling $4,942.19 to cover part of a rectification payment and a tax refund payment made to her ($1,300 of which was paid).
In addition, Ms Gong and both companies breached workplace laws relating to payslips and record keeping. Skypic Group and Ms Gong also breached laws by failing to comply with a Notice to Produce records or documents, and Skypac Group and Ms Gong were held to have provided inspectors with false or misleading records.
Judge John O’Sullivan said Skypac and Skypic had previously been put on notice to comply with workplace laws, the breaches were serious and deliberate, and the penalties should “act as a deterrent to others who may be minded to flout the law”.
Judge O’Sullivan also said it is an illustration of, all too common, phenomena where employers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds who exploit workers (including, or especially, from within their own ethnic communities), before coming before the court and seek to rely on their own alleged ignorance of workplace laws or foreign cultural norms to mitigate any penalties that need to be applied when they are finally caught out.
In total, 27 employees were underpaid a total of $38,458 over various periods in 2017, including 10 juniors under the age of 18.
Workers at the Werribee store were underpaid $23,902.47 and workers at the Geelong store were underpaid $14,555.64. Employees have been back-paid.
“Enforcing compliance with workplace laws in the fast food, restaurant and café sector, which employs many vulnerable workers, continues to be a priority for the Fair Work Ombudsman,” said Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker.