A fruit farmer has been penalised $144,000 for deliberately underpaying two Malaysian fruit pickers.
In addition, he used false documents to cover it up.
The Federal Circuit Court penalised Zucco Farming Pty Ltd $120,000 and the company’s sole director Chris Zucco a further $24,000.
Fruit farmer penalised for wage theft
Zucco employed the two Malaysian nationals on bridging visas to work at the fruit farm near Swan Hill in Victoria.
They picked fruit and performed pruning, packing in addition to cleaning duties.
Zucco underpaid them flat hourly rates of between $15.41 and $16.77 for all hours worked.
The Award stipulates minimum ordinary rates of $21.61 an hour and $38.90 an hour for public holiday work.
The underpayments totalled $13,529.
When one of the workers asked Zucco why their payslips listed a rate of $21 an hour, Zucco replied:
“I am not paying you $21… I do that just for my bookwork.”
Zucco also provided false and misleading records to Fair Work inspectors.
The paperwork showed the employees worked less hours than they did, and overstated how much Zucco paid them.
‘Serious exploitation of employees’
Judge Anthony Kelly said Zucco and his company had “made deliberate and conscious decisions to underpay the employees” and had “persistently attempted to deceive the FWO”.
“They deliberately sought to mislead the FWO, both before and after the proceeding had commenced.
“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.”
Judge Kelly also said the penalty is a warning to other recalcitrant employers.
“I accept that it is necessary that the penalty imposed reflects the strong need for general deterrence in circumstances where employers may be tempted to prey on the vulnerability of employees, whether by reason of their migratory status or lack of knowledge of their legal entitlements.”
Penalties not enough
Industrial advocate Miles Heffernan once again called for criminal penalties for wage theft.
“If these workers had stolen $13,000 from the company safe, they would be charged with a crime and face court and criminal penalties,” he said.
“Why are the rules different for bosses who steal from their workers?
“You can impose all the monetary penalties in the world, but they are not working.
“Wage theft continues to be rife in many industries in this country, including the horticulture sector.”
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