Ballarat businesses bite back at inquiry claims

Businesses named in Tuesday’s Senate inquiry into worker exploitation have said they were blindsided by union allegations of underpayment and bullying behaviour.

Anger: Employers named at a Senate inquiry on Tuesday say they received no notification of employee complaints made against them to Trades Hall. Stock image.

Anger: Employers named at a Senate inquiry on Tuesday say they received no notification of employee complaints made against them to Trades Hall. Stock image.

Trades Hall secretary Brett Edgington told the inquiry the names of over a dozen Ballarat businesses whose employees he said had made representations to the union or Young Workers Centre.

Mr Edgington also said he had been contacted by witnesses who had seen a Caltex employee breakdown after a fuel drive off because the money would be deducted from his pay.

Caltex Australia said on Wednesday the allegations would be investigated.

However other businesses said they were left angry and confused by their inclusion in what Mr Edgington told the inquiry was a carefully compiled list, informed by individual representations to Trades Hall over issues such as underpayment and withholding of entitlements.

Red Peppa owner Sheree Allan said she approached Trades Hall to clarify the nature of the complaint after being named in the inquiry, but was told only that it had been made 15 months ago. 

She said she was “blown away” by support from staff and customers since allegations were aired on Tuesday.

Liberty Oil Wendouree service station co-owner and manager Bangru Mutta said workers were paid award rates. 

Capri Cafe owner Michael Moussi said his staff were also paid award rates; “I’ve got a big staff here, all my staff are happy. It’s all ex-staff who have problems with management when they leave and they make stories.”

The owner of one business alleged at the inquiry to be underpaying workers conceded “a couple” of their workers had been paid cash-in-hand. 

Rubicon Fish Shop owner Yun Guo told The Courier she understood paying cash-in-hand was normal practice and she would cease paying staff this way.

Don Chiccios Pizza and Pasta’s accountant Tony Webb said: “since they've been with our firm I can only say they've been compliant with all their obligations to their employees.”

A spokesperson for Gloria Jean’s Coffees said neither the two Ballarat franchisees nor the company’s personal relations department had been contacted by Trades Hall about employee complaints, and both franchisees “denied any impropriety”. 

The Courier sought comment from every business named at the inquiry. Bean and Barrow, Racers Cafe and Bar, Royal Indians in Ballarat and Ferguson Plarre Bakehouse, all named by Mr Edgington at the inquiry, but they did not respond prior to publication. Owners of the Golf House Hotel, The Boatshed, Lake View Hotel and Dolls Cleaning Service have previously refuted the union’s claims.

Use of parliamentary privilege deplored

Commerce Ballarat has condemned the use of parliamentary privilege to “name and shame” local businesses alleged to have been non-compliant with the Fair Work Act.

Trades Hall secretary Brett Edgington told an inquiry into worker exploitation the names of over a dozen Ballarat businesses whose employees he said had made representations to the union or Young Workers Centre.

“The inquiry is important and we must continue to be vigilant to ensure that employee rights and entitlements are met but as an organisation we express our sincere disappointment that the cover of parliamentary privilege was used to name local businesses,” chief executive officer Jodie Gillett said in a statement to members.

Two Commerce Ballarat member businesses – Lake View Hotel and Dolls Cleaning Services – were named.

Jodie Gillett.

Jodie Gillett.

Both have denied the claims and said they comply with the award and entitlements.

Mr Edgington also submitted to the inquiry that the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) was “underwhelming” and “purely reactive” in its oversight of regional workplaces in particular. He also said prosecution of businesses by FWO amounted to a slap on the wrist. 

Mr Edgington said Steve Bryant, owner of The Boatshed and The Golf Club Hotel, had been taken to court several times for underpayment but settled out of court confidentially and suggested FWO introduce a strikes policy for businesses who were serially non-compliant. 

Mr Bryant said neither he nor his businesses had ever been found to be in breach of the Fair Work Act, or found to have breached their legal obligations.

 A spokesperson for the FWO said “we reject the assertions made with regard to our activity” and the FWO “in the middle” of spot audits of Ballarat businesses.