Employer chooses jail time over paying staff
A North Queensland tourism operator has been jailed for contempt after refusing to repay nearly $30,000 in unpaid wages owed to five employees.
It is the first time a jail term has been imposed as the result of action from the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) and clear evidence of just how brazenly some employers are choosing to engage in wage theft.
Leigh Alan Jorgensen, operator of Cairns company Trek North Tours, was sentenced in the Federal Circuit Court to 12 months imprisonment for failing to backpay wages and entitlements to five employees.
The workers – backpackers employed on working holidays visas – were underpaid in 2013 and 2014.
The FWO had previously sought freezing orders in an attempt to prevent Mr Jorgensen from dispersing assets and to ensure the aggrieved workers would be paid.
Mr Jorgensen did not comply with the freezing orders. The FWO claimed Mr Jorgensen was prepared to bankrupt his company to avoid paying the five workers.
Fair Work inspectors reported Mr Jorgensen said the workers "would not get a cent" in back pay from his company.
Mr Jorgensen is currently appealing the imposed jail term.
IEUA-QNT Assistant Secretary/Treasurer Paul Giles said the employer’s conduct was brazen and clear evidence of what is wrong with our industrial relations system.
“The fact that this employer has not only underpaid vulnerable workers, but also ignored and continued to fight orders from the FWO is outrageous,” Mr Giles said.
“It is now more than three years down the line and these workers are still awaiting payment of their wages and entitlements."
Mr Giles said workers employed on working holidays visas were especially vulnerable to exploitation as they lacked the collective support of employees in unionised industries.
“Where unions are not easily able to organise workers, such as in seasonal industries or where workers are employed on short-term visas, is where we see some of the highest rates of worker exploitation,” Mr Giles said.
“We need to improve our industrial laws to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation.
“We also need an industrial umpire that is empowered to prosecute employers who break the law and to strongly dissuade others from following suit.”
Mr Giles said the national union-led Change The Rules campaign was a driving force to improve our industrial rules.
“Our union is strongly engaged with the Change The Rules campaign; our members are fighting for the right of all workers to not be exploited in their work and to have access to a secure job with fair pay.”
Learn more about the Change The Rules campaign at www.qieu.asn.au/changetherules