Following legal action by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO), a company that operated news websites in regional Queensland and its director have been penalised a total of $264,924 for underpaying young workers.
Moreover, the Federal Circuit Court ordered Touchpoint Media Pty Ltd and company director Laurence Bernard Ward to back-pay 23 staff a total $305,780 for underpayments that occurred between January 2015 and June 2016.
Four workers were underpaid more than $30,000 each, with the largest underpayment of wages and entitlements being $48,217.
FWO inspectors commenced an investigation after workers lodged requests for assistance.
Ombudsman Sandra Parker said the Court’s penalty sends a strong message that deliberately underpaying young workers is serious conduct that will not be tolerated.
“Requests for assistance from young workers are a high priority for the Fair Work Ombudsman. Younger people can be particularly vulnerable in the workplace if they are less aware of their rights or reluctant to complain,” said Parker.
“Any employer tempted to underpay young workers for their own benefit should think again because we will do everything within our power to ensure such conduct is met with significant consequences.”
The FWO inspectors found Touchpoint Media had frequently underpaid or failed to pay for duties performed at the company.
A few of the journalists were in their early 20s and recruited straight out of university, and were based at a central location in Brisbane or moved to regional areas.
Judge Tony Young found that “some of these employees were vulnerable and eager to obtain a job so as to enter the industry or the profession of journalism”.
“There is some evidence that Touchpoint especially sought out such employees,” Judge Young said.
“I am satisfied that there was an element of exploitation involved with young employees that would have been less likely to occur with older or more experienced employees.
“As such, I am satisfied that the experience of employment by Touchpoint, and the consequent serious underpayment of many employees, was a bitter and humiliating experience.”
The Court also found that Touchpoint Media and Ward breached workplace laws during the investigation by knowingly providing false PAYG records to FWO inspectors that significantly over-stated the amounts employees had been paid.
Judge Young said the breach was serious and was “an aggravating factor and suggests a lack of contrition”.
The Judge found that the breaches were deliberate and, in setting the penalty, said “the overriding factor is the need to ensure compliance with workplace laws, particularly those in issue here designed to protect employees.”
The Court ordered Touchpoint Media to pay $220,320 and Ward a further $44,604 for breaching workplace laws.
Aside from the penalties and back-pay order, Judge Young ordered the company to commission an external audit of its compliance and report the results to the FWO.