The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) has launched legal action against Victorian fruit farmer Chris Zucco and his company Zucco Farming, who is accused of underpaying two Malaysian fruit pickers by more than $13,000.
According to FWO, the pair were entitled to ordinary rates of pay of at least $21.61 per hour, and $38.90 per hour on public holidays under the horticulture award.
However Zucco Farming allegedly paid the two workers between $15.41 and $16.77 for all hours worked between August 2015 and March 2016, amassing a combined underpayment for both employees of $13,529.
More concerning for the regulator was the allegation that Mr Zucco attempted to hide the underpayment to inspectors by understating the number of hours the two employees had worked.
“Allegations that records have been knowingly fabricated are very serious. If proven, this type of behaviour often indicates that operators are knowingly underpaying their workforce and using false documents in order to conceal the conduct,” Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James said.
“When employers fail to keep records or supply us with inaccurate records, it compromised our ability to determine whether workers have been paid their full lawful entitlements.”
Zucco Farming as a business faces penalties of up to $54,000 per contravention, while Mr Zucco could also be subject to personal penalties of up to $10,800 per contravention.
It comes as the former operator of another business has been fined an additional $500 for failing to pay back previous underpayments to workers.
Hari Pal used to own Konna Indian Cuisine, later renamed Punjabi Tandoori Corner in Melbourne.
FWO found two Indian students were underpaid by $8,082 between October 2014 and January 2015, having been paid a flat rate of $12 an hour without any penalty rates on nights, weekends and public holidays.
Mr Pal did not own the business at the time, however he had taken over the business by October 2015 when the ombudsman issued a compliance notice. It was alleged he made no attempt to rectify the problem.
According to FWO, Mr Pal has since reimbursed the affected workers more than half of the amount owed, and has committed to repay the remainder in monthly instalments.
Ms James said businesses employing foreign workers are especially under the watchful eye of FWO.
“We … treat cases involving underpayment of overseas workers particularly seriously because we are conscious that they can be vulnerable due to a lack of awareness of their entitlements, language barriers and a reluctance to complain,” she said.