A café operator has been fined almost $100,000 for wage underpayment, just as reports emerge of a push to introduce 10-year jail terms for employers who deliberately underpay their staff.
Tibor Vertes and his business Robit Nominees, which operate Bar Coluzzi on Victoria Street, a licensed cafe in the inner Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst, were fined $9,720 and $87,345 respectively after a court found them guilty of forcing an employee to pay back some of her wages.
According to the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO), Mr Vertes and his business contracted the worker for 40 hours per week on a 457 temporary skills visa, at an annual wage of $56,000. However she typically worked 54 hours per week.
Yet in a 15-month period between August 2014 until her resignation in November 2015, Mr Vertes forced the worker to pay back a portion of her wages. Over the period, this amount accrued to $13,952. Payslips were also not provided.
The worker obliged, claiming she feared losing her job and her visa, forcing her to return to Italy.
Judge Nicholas Manousaridis criticised Mr Vertes behaviour, and noted that he knew better as an experienced businessman and qualified lawyer.
“The manner in which the Weekly Repayments were paid suggested it was a scheme established to create the false impression that [the worker] was being paid her lawful entitlements,” the judge said.
“Mr Vertes was an experienced business person and an admitted legal practitioner, it is inconceivable Mr Vertes was unaware of the legal obligations of Robit Nominees as employer to [the worker].”
Judge Manousaridis also noted the lack of contrition displayed by Mr Vertes. These combined were deemed significant enough to use the case “to send a strong message to the restaurant industry in which Mr Vertes works”.
"We treat very seriously cases where employers take advantage of the power imbalance they have over vulnerable migrant workers by cheating the workers out of their basic, lawful minimum entitlements,” acting Fair Work Ombudsman Kristen Hannah said.
“There is no excuse for any business to underpay its staff, and visa holders are entitled to the same minimum rates as Australian workers.”
The penalties dwarf those handed down last year to an Albury business for a similar wage cashback scheme.
In that case in February 2017, Fares Ghazale, the former operator of the Canteen Cuisine café, and his business Rubee Enterprises, were collectively penalised $532,000 for threatening two workers with violence and deportation if they did not comply with their employer’s request for cash to be repaid.
Meanwhile a union petition has emerged in Victoria to push for a 10-year maximum jail term for employers who deliberately withhold the entitlements of their workers.
“They should just rename #MasterchefAU to #MasterTheft and be done with it,” a Tweet by the We Are Union: Young Workers said, in reference to the wage scandals involving MasterChef judge George Calombaris and other restaurateurs have faced in recent months.
Fairfax Media reported the push is being led by the Victorian Trades Hall Council, which wants “wage theft” made a crime in Victoria, capable of illiciting punishments of up to 10 years behind bars.
“It’s so rampant, it’s so out of control, it’s time for police to step in … we think this will be a game changer. We will send people to prison over this,” the council’s secretary Luke Hilakari was quoted as saying.
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.