The Fair Work Ombudsman has commenced legal action against a Northern Victorian fruit farmer who is alleged to have underpaid two Malaysian fruit pickers more than $13000 and provided false and misleading records to Fair Work inspectors.
The ombudsman alleges Woorinen (near Swan Hill) stone fruit farmer Chris Zucco, and his company Zucco Farming, underpaid the man and his father-in-law, who were both in Australia on bridging visas, by $13529 between August 2015 and March 2016.
The company is alleged to have paid the men flat rates between $15.41 and $16.77 per hour for all their work, including picking fruit and performing pruning, packing and cleaning duties.
Under the Horticulture Award 2010 which was in place at the time of the alleged offending, the workers were entitled to $21.61 per hour and $38.90 per hour on public holidays.
It is alleged that Mr Zucco and his company knowingly provided false and misleading records to inspectors understating the number of hours worked by the two men, despite the employees regularly providing Mr Zucco with records of their actual work hours.
Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James said legal action had been taken due to the serious nature of the allegations.
‘‘Allegations that records have been knowingly fabricated are very serious,’’ Ms James said.
‘‘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,’’ she said.
‘‘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.’’
Zucco Farming Pty Ltd faces maximum penalties of up to $54000 per contravention, with Mr Zucco facing penalties of up to $10800 per contravention.
Ms James said the records kept by the employees played a crucial role in making it possible to determine the amount of alleged underpayments and ultimately pursue legal actions.
She encouraged workers to keep a record of their hours worked, with the Record My Hours app launched by the ombudsman earlier in the year.
‘‘This does not absolve employers from their record-keeping obligations — but it provides employees with an extra layer of protection if their employer neglects their record-keeping responsibilities or creates false or misleading records, as is alleged in this case,’’ Ms James said.
The matter is listed for a directions hearing at the Federal Court in Melbourne on August 21.
■Employers and employees can seek assistance at www.fairwork.gov.au or phone the Fair Work Infoline on 131 394.
■A free interpreter service is available by phoning 131 450.