A $2.3 million penalty has been handed down to a business that was found to have sold thousands of “fake” Indigenous Australian souvenirs to other retailers, following legal action by the competition regulator.
The ACCC said that its action in the Federal Court had resulted in the multimillion-dollar fine, plus costs, being handed to Birubi Art Pty Ltd, which is now in liquidation.
Birubi had supplied close to 50,000 items — including boomerangs, didgeridoos, message stones and bullroarers — to retail outlets across the country between July 2015 and November 2017, the regulator said.
The products, according to the ACCC, were marked as being “authentic Aboriginal art”, “hand-painted” and included references to Australia, despite all having been made in Indonesia.
Legal action against Birubi Art was launched in October 2018, at which point the ACCC had said 18,000 of the Indonesian-made products had been sold in Australia.
‘Penalty sends strong message’
Labelling the conduct “extremely serious”, ACCC commissioner Sarah Court said that “this penalty sends a strong message” about representing products, such as Aboriginal art, as being genuine when they are not.
“Birubi’s actions were extremely serious. Not only did they mislead consumers, they were liable to cause offence and distress to Australian Aboriginal people,” she said.
“Engagement in the Indigenous Australian art industry is extremely important to a significant number of Australian Aboriginal people, especially those in remote regions.
“The ACCC took this action because the misleading conduct has the potential to undermine the integrity of the industry and reduce opportunities for Australian Aboriginal peoples.”
Ms Court issued a warning that her office will continue to monitor the sale of Indigenous-style art and souvenirs in order to “ensure confidence in the Indigenous Australian art industry”.
“We will take action against those who mislead consumers about the nature of their products,” she said.
ASIC’s registers show that Birubi Art is under external administration.
What is ‘Australian’ not always clear-cut
It is not the first time that businesses have fallen afoul of country of origin labelling and promotion.
Late last year, supplements maker Nature’s Care lost a court appeal against a decision to have its Made in Australia status removed on products that it argued were “substantially transformed” locally.
Separately, around the same time the Birubi Art legal action was announced, it was revealed that a small business in Sydney had been penalised for stating that its range of Ugg boots “was 100 per cent Aussie owned” when the products were largely made in China.
That manufacturer subsequently told My Business that it felt it had been the victim of “a witch hunt” and a bullying campaign by the ACCC.