Warrnambool restaurant workers short-changed $84,000

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 10th June 2008

About 60 Warrnambool fast food and restaurant workers – some as young as 16 – are to be reimbursed more than $84,000 after investigations by the Workplace Ombudsman found many were being significantly underpaid.Up to 30 workplace inspectors have been auditing 16 restaurants and fast food outlets in Warrnambool for the past nine months, with one restaurant found to have short-changed eight of its staff more than $28,000 between December, 2006 and December, 2007.

Workplace Ombudsman Nicholas Wilson indicated that many of the workers are overseas students studying in Warrnambool who have taken casual jobs such as waiters, kitchen hands and dishwashers.

Investigators found many were being employed unfairly, in some cases unlawfully, and paid “cash in hand” at rates well below what they were entitled to.

Mr Wilson said the issue was serious and employers should remember that breaches of workplace laws could result in hefty penalties – up to a maximum $33,000 per offence – if his office decided to prosecute.

The most recent audit of four premises uncovered breaches of workplace laws affecting 35 employees who had been underpaid almost $37,000.

While he was pleased the staff would be reimbursed, Mr Wilson expressed concern about fears being expressed by some workers they will suffer reprisals if they keep the money. “Incredibly, some of those involved have told our office in Warrnambool they are being bullied not to cash their cheques,” he said. “My message to any employer who pulls a stunt like that is very simple – the exploitation of young and vulnerable workers will not be tolerated.”

Mr Wilson said that while investigations at Warrnambool had officially closed, his office would keep a close eye on the issue. “Workers alleging harassment by their employer will be referred to police,” he said.

Mr Wilson advised employers to understand their obligations to staff and comply with them, and urged any employer with doubts about whether or not they were doing the right thing to find out immediately.

Information is available for both employers and employees on the workplace information line (1300 363 264) and on the Workplace Ombudsman’s website at www.wo.gov.au.