Reality TV star faces Court over unpaid internship program

The Sydney-based company allegedly underpaid three employees a total of $40,543 between 2013 and 2015

Reality TV star faces Court over unpaid internship program
A fashion industry company that featured on the reality show Shark Tank is facing Court for allegedly running an unlawful unpaid internship program.

Legal action has been commenced in the Federal Circuit Court against Her Fashion Box and its sole director and majority shareholder, Kathleen Enyd Purkis.

The Sydney-based company sells online subscribers ‘fashion boxes’ containing fashion accessories and beauty products, and featured on the second season of Shark Tank.

The legal action comes after a Fair Work Ombudsman litigation last year resulted in the Federal Circuit Court imposing $272,850 in penalties against the media company AIMG BQ to send a “serious message” not to disguise employment relationships as unpaid internships.

The Fair Work Ombudsman alleges Her Fashion Box company underpaid three employees a total of $40,543 for various periods of work between 2013 and 2015.

The three employees, aged in their mid-20s, were at times underpaid their minimum hourly rates, overtime, public holiday pay and annual leave entitlements, it is alleged.

One worker was a graphic designer with a university degree who allegedly worked two-days per week for almost six months without pay.

This was allegedly under a purported ‘unpaid internship’ before she received a one-off payment of just $1000. She was allegedly underpaid $6913.

The Fair Work Ombudsman alleges she was in fact engaged as an employee and performing productive work, and therefore entitled to be paid minimum Award rates and entitlements.

Another graphic designer engaged by Her Fashion Box was allegedly underpaid a total of $15,511 over a period of two years of full-time work as a result of underpayment of his minimum Award entitlements.

The third employee, engaged on a full-time basis as a brand partnerships manager, was allegedly underpaid a total of $18,119 over a 12-month period.

The Fair Work Ombudsman also alleged that Her Fashion Box further contravened the law by failing to comply with four Notices to Produce documents or records issued by Fair Work inspectors.

Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James said legal action has been commenced because of the lack of co-operation with inspectors and the significant amounts involved for young employees.

Her Fashion Box faces maximum penalties of up to $51,000 per contravention and Purkis faces penalties of up to $10,200 per contravention.

The Fair Work Ombudsman is also seeking Court Orders requiring the company and Purkis to back-pay the employees in full. They have been only partially back-paid to date.

An injunction restraining Her Fashion Box and Purkis from underpaying workers in future is also being sought. If the injunction is granted, the company and Purkis could face contempt of court proceedings for any further underpayment contraventions proven in court.

A directions hearing took place in the Federal Circuit Court in Sydney on 31 May 2017.

James said her agency had received a number of requests for assistance from Her Fashion Box workers since 2015 with employees claiming they had been underpaid due to allegedly unlawful ‘internship’ arrangements.

“Unpaid placements or ‘internships’ are legitimate in certain cases – for example, where they are part of a vocational placement related to a course of study,” said James.

“The law prohibits the exploitation of workers by characterising them as ‘interns’ or as doing ‘work experience’ when they are fulfilling the role of an employee. Such workers must be paid minimum employee entitlements.

“Legitimate internship and work placements can be a genuine way for people to further their learning or gain skills that assist in finding stable employment, but only if these arrangements are entered into lawfully in accordance with an approved program.

“Employers cannot simply choose to label an employee as an ‘intern’ in order to avoid paying their staff according to their lawful entitlements.”

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