By not being formally classed as an apprentice, the plumber’s labourer employed by Pulis Plumbing was entitled to drastically higher rates of pay – $37.08 per hour in ordinary time and twice that for overtime. However, he was only paid the apprentice rate of $12.18 per hour, leading to a shortfall of $26,882 in just three months.
The worker’s leave and termination entitlements, as well as meal and travel allowances, were also underpaid.
At the time, Pulis Plumbing undertook work across Melbourne, Bendigo and Geelong.
Hearing the matter in court, Judge Grant Riethmuller found that rather than a simple oversight, the underpayment by Pulis Plumbing and its director Michael Patrick Pulis was a deliberate action.
The judge noted that Mr Pulis’ actions amounted to “outrageous exploitation of a young person” and were “nothing short of avarice”.
Mr Pulis was also criticised for his response to the labourer’s requests for when he would be paid the outstanding monies, responding by text message with “Seriously, f**k off. When I’m ready”.
“The conduct is worse than simply underpaying an employee who has had difficulty obtaining work elsewhere, as the respondents also held out the lure of an apprenticeship to this young man: a particularly significant career and life goal for a young person who is not academically inclined. The amount of the underpayment, in comparison to the payments actually made, is significant,” said Judge Riethmuller.
“A further loss on the part of the employee in this case is that the time working for the respondents cannot be counted against his apprenticeship because of the failure to sign and lodge the appropriate documentation.”
Mr Pulis was personally fined $21,500 while his company was hit with a $100,000 penalty.
“It is simply unacceptable to exploit any worker in such a way and the conduct is even more abhorrent when you consider the response the worker received for doing nothing more than asking for what he was lawfully entitled to,” Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James said in response to the verdict.
In October last year, a regional NSW business was forced to backpay $25,000 after similarly not signing a labourer up to an apprenticeship, although that instance was found to have been an administrative blunder on the business’ part.
At the time, several My Business readers criticised the Fair Work Ombudsman for its lack of compassion and understanding of the complex path small employers face navigating the workplace relations system.
“In other words, ‘we're not sorry the whole system is ridiculously complex; and we're not actually here to assist you. Look on our website and figure it out for yourself...and if you get it wrong, we'll smash you’,” one reader commented.
“If you have a law degree perhaps a person could navigate the fair work website,” said another.