Worker underpayments ‘widespread’: businessman

Mani Rosete, who has owned San Churro Wollongong for four years, says all his staff who previously worked elsewhere had been underpaid. Mr Rosete has alerted the Fair Work Ombudsman. Picture: Sylvia Liber

Mani Rosete, who has owned San Churro Wollongong for four years, says all his staff who previously worked elsewhere had been underpaid. Mr Rosete has alerted the Fair Work Ombudsman. Picture: Sylvia Liber

A Wollongong businessman has backed a Fairfax Media investigation that revealed a culture of exploitation among young workers, saying every one of his employees who previously worked elsewhere had been underpaid.

Mani Rosete, who owns San Churro in Globe Lane, has told the Mercury the underpayment of young hospitality workers was widespread and he hoped shining a light on the issue would deliver positive results. 

”I would like to say the problem isn’t that big, but unfortunately I know it is,” Mr Rosete said.

“Every single worker I have ever employed that was working elsewhere was underpaid. Some cash in hand and others just blatant underpayment.”

A two-month Fairfax Media investigation into the underpayment of workers aged 18 to 24, revealed in last Saturday’s Mercury, uncovered claims of exploitation in cafes, restaurants and shops across the Illawarra

Thirteen workers – allegedly underpaid, or not paid at all, by their employers – shared their stories publicly as part of the investigation.

What started as a vent on social media has exposed an endemic pattern of young workers being exploited across the region. We lift the lid on the Illawarra’s sorry record. Click on the image above to view the Fairfax Media special feature.

What started as a vent on social media has exposed an endemic pattern of young workers being exploited across the region. We lift the lid on the Illawarra’s sorry record. Click on the image above to view the Fairfax Media special feature.

Mr Rosete uses an online rostering system at San Churro, which ensures the appropriate shift penalties and entitlements are applied. As a franchise, head office oversees employee payments.

The businessman said many of his employees had told him about being underpaid elsewhere, prompting him to alert Cunningham MP Sharon Bird to the issue.

Ms Bird referred the matter to the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO), but the investigation “went nowhere very fast”, Mr Rosete said.

“Unfortunately, Fair Work will only investigate if they receive an actual complaint from a worker and not from someone who is passing them information on,” he said.

A FWO spokesman said it received information and intelligence from “a variety of sources”, which determined the scope of its compliance and education activities.

I would like to say the problem isn’t that big, but unfortunately I know it is – Mani Rosete

The spokesman confirmed an MP wrote to the FWO earlier this year about concerns raised by Mr Rosete. 

“An officer from the Fair Work Ombudsman contacted the business operator … to discuss his knowledge of cafés and restaurants in the Illawarra region that may not be complying with workplace laws,” he said.

“The information and intelligence provided will be used by the Fair Work Ombudsman to inform compliance and education activities.”

Employer, worker awareness is key: IBC

The complex nature of industrial relations can be difficult for employers to understand, but it’s not an excuse for doing the wrong thing by workers.

That’s the view of Illawarra Business Chamber (IBC) executive director Chris Lamont, who has urged employers and employees alike to use the multitude of regulatory resources available to them.

Mr Lamont described the findings of a recent Fairfax Media investigation, which uncovered dozens of underpaid workers, as a surprise – particularly given the amount of information available from the Fair Work Commission and the Fair Work Ombudsman.

The IBC boss said the industrial relations framework was “complex”, with employers often managing people across different awards, and people at different levels of the same award, while trying to run their business.

“This stuff can get on top of them,” he said.

“That’s not an excuse for not paying the right entitlements and employers do need to make themselves aware, or invest in, the resources that provide that assistance to them.”

Meanwhile, workers being paid cash in hand were at risk of “getting in strife with Centrelink”, Mr Lamont said, because they might not be declaring that income.

“For employees, I guess it’s a double whammy in terms of the risk that they face,” he said.

“For employers, this is not only illegal, but it will ruin their businesses from a reputational standing, particularly in a community or a region like the Illawarra.”

With 27,000 businesses across the region, Mr Lamont stressed the “vast majority” were doing the right thing by their employees.

The IBC has a 24-hour advice line available via its member service called Workplace Assured. For information, call 4229 4722.

Lengthy unpaid trials ‘not OK’

The workplace regulator says it’s working to dispel “a myth” that it was OK for employers not to pay young workers for extended trials.

The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) has labelled a recent Fairfax Media investigation into the alleged underpayment of workers aged 18 to 24 as “concerning”.

Rashid Saleem, one of the 13 workers who shared their story as part of the two-month probe, said he worked three days for free on the promise of a job paying $16 an hour.

SPEAKING UP: Rashid Saleem, a worker who shared his story with Fairfax Media, says he completed five-hour unpaid trial shifts at a Woonona restaurant. Picture: Janie Barrett

SPEAKING UP: Rashid Saleem, a worker who shared his story with Fairfax Media, says he completed five-hour unpaid trial shifts at a Woonona restaurant. Picture: Janie Barrett

After completing the five-hour unpaid trial shifts, the 22-year-old claimed he was offered $12 an hour, but worked one shift and was never called back.

[Read Rashid’s full story, as told as part of the Fairfax Media special investigation, here]

“Any notion that it is OK not to pay young workers for extended trials lasting a number of hours is a myth that we are actively trying to dispel,” a FWO spokesman told the Mercury.

“It is also completely unacceptable and unlawful for employers to pay young workers arbitrarily determined flat rates of pay that are below the lawful minimum rates they are entitled to.”

Further information about trials can be found at fairwork.gov.au/pay/unpaid-work/unpaid-trials

Any worker who is concerned they have been underpaid or treated unfairly can contact the Fair Work Ombudsman for free advice and assistance via the website at fairwork.gov.au or by calling the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94. 

The Fair Work Ombudsman’s Pay and Conditions Tool (PACT) is available at calculate.fairwork.gov.au

Government, regulator to enforce laws

The federal employment minister and the country’s workplace regulator have put employers on notice, saying the exploitation of young workers – as exposed in a Fairfax Media investigation – won’t be tolerated.

The investigation uncovered dozens of young workers allegedly underpaid – or not paid at all – by their employers, prompting calls for the government to act.

Earlier this week, South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris called on the Turnbull government to “protect young people” and questioned whether it was giving employers the impression it would “turn a blind eye” to wrongdoings.

In response, Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash said the exploitation of workers in Australia, whether they were domestic or foreign, was “unlawful, wrong and will not be tolerated”.

Ms Cash said the Coalition had implemented a range of measures to ensure workers were aware of their rights and stressed employers seeking to exploit workers would be “investigated and punished appropriately”.   

“The government has a strong policy and will take all steps necessary to ensure that workplace laws are understood and enforced,” she said.

The policy includes amendments to the Fair Work Act to provide strengthened protections for vulnerable workers, an extra $20 million to the Fair Work Ombudsman to enforce workplace laws, and a taskforce to identify and rectify instances of the exploitation of migrant workers, the minister said.

A spokesman for the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) – the country’s workplace regulator – said it was an employer’s lawful responsibility to ensure they were aware of the minimum pay rates applicable to their workplace and that every employee was paid their full entitlements.

“Employers should be aware that the Fair Work Ombudsman treats exploitation of young workers particularly seriously and we are prepared to take enforcement action to ensure young workers’ rights are protected,” the spokesman said.

Young employees’ awareness of their workplace rights was one of the best defences against being underpaid, he said. 

SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Read each of the 13 workers’ stories​

DO YOU HAVE A STORY TO SHARE?: Contact us in confidence at cos@illawarramercury.com.au

THINK YOU’VE BEEN UNDERPAID?: Call the Claim Your Pay hotline on 1300 486 466 or visit claimyourpay.com.au

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