23/04/2008 - 22:00

Fighting workplace breaches

23/04/2008 - 22:00

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The Howard government was repeatedly attacked for undermining workers’ rights, so it is ironic that one of its creations, the Workplace Ombudsman, has become a forceful protector of workers.

Fighting workplace breaches

The Howard government was repeatedly attacked for undermining workers’ rights, so it is ironic that one of its creations, the Workplace Ombudsman, has become a forceful protector of workers.

The Workplace Ombudsman, which operates as an independent authority, has launched dozens of investigations around Australia, mainly targeting low-paid workers in industries such as hospitality, fast food and retailing.

In many cases its investigations have turned into prosecutions against what it believes are errant employers.

Where successful, the penalties imposed by the courts are usually much larger than the savings apparently made by employers who underpaid their staff.

Its latest target is the Chooks Fresh and Tasty franchise in the Perth suburb of Thornlie, which is set to face court over the alleged underpayment of three teenage workers, totaling $3,029.

Like many cases, the Chooks investigation was initiated after the Workplace Ombudsman received complaints from the junior employees.

“Of particular concern, in assessing the public interest in this matter is that the claimants were aged 14, 15 and 16 at the time of their employment,” the Workplace Ombudsman’s chief counsel Leigh Johns said.

“Young workers like these often rely on their employers to do the right thing and meet their workplace obligations.

“It is the Workplace Ombudsman’s case that this did not occur in respect of these employees.”

Mr Johns said the court action may result in wider implications for the franchise group, which has 33 stores across Western Australia and four in Queensland.

“We hope these breaches are isolated and are not widespread, but it may be that this litigation is a test case in this industry,” Mr Johns said.

“The alleged breaches are very serious and cannot be ignored.”

The Chooks prosecution follows a fast food industry campaign, which has so far recovered just more than $176,000 for fast food and juice bar workers in WA.

The amount recovered was the result of breaches identified across 23 companies in the fast food and juice bar industry in WA.

The underpayments ranged from $20 to $5,054 and applied to 150 employees.

Another sector targeted has been the trolley collecting industry.

More than 200 workers have received their lawful entitlements, collectively worth $39,000, as a result of the campaign.

The Workplace Ombudsman noted that Coles and Woolworths have addressed the failings in the industry by instigating changes in their contracting practices.

One of the biggest penalties arising from a workplace inquiry was a $70,000 penalty imposed on a Tasmanian hotelier, who was found guilty of underpaying 41 casual employees over a seven-year period.

The underpayments totalled $18,405.

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