Ballarat underpaid workers speak out

The owner of supported accommodation in Ballarat could face legal action for underpaying workers, some of whom are alleged to have been paid as little as $6.25 an hour.

Browen-Lee Home proprietor Barbara Broughton confirmed to The Courier she had paid employees cash-in-hand.

The claim follows revelations by the Health Workers Union (HWU) at an inquiry into worker exploitation last month that the majority of supported residential services (SRS) in Victoria were avoiding their obligations under the award.

The case is “one of the more extreme” instances of disregard for workers’ rights in a service area beset by claims of illegal wages, HWU assistant secretary David Eden said.

Ms Broughton owns and operates two registered SRS in Ballarat; one at Lake Wendouree and another at Brown Hill. 

A former worker, who claims she was paid between $12 and $18.75 an hour, said she would never be able to own a home because the tax office deemed her job “illegitimate” based on the proof of employment supplied by Ms Broughton.

The former worker spoke to The Courier on the condition of anonymity. 

The Health Workers Union will be pursuing the SRS for back pay and unfair dismissal on the former workers’ behalf. 

Payslips seen by The Courier reveal a $12.50 hourly rate, with a total of $200 paid for a 16 hour shift. Boxes for tax and superannuation were marked “nil”. The slip was signed by the employer.

On another, the payslips record tax which amounts to just over two per cent of the gross wage.

“The bank turned down my loan because they declared the paperwork supplied by my manager was for a job that wasn’t legitimate and therefore, when they approached the taxation department, my loan which had been granted was reversed,” the former worker said.

“It’s absolutely devastated me that I could work for that low a wage and then be treated so badly.”

She said a career in care had cost her financially stability. 

“Every carer job except one that I’ve had has been very, very low paid,” she said.

“I love doing jobs where you’re caring for people but we’ve been ripped off again and again and again so in the end we end up with very little just because we’re dedicated to helping people.”

Illegal wage: Proprietors of supported accommodation in Ballarat could face legal action for underpayment and unfair dismissal.

Illegal wage: Proprietors of supported accommodation in Ballarat could face legal action for underpayment and unfair dismissal.

SRS are privately operated and overseen by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Each SRS sets its own fee structure and the level of care it provides. 

The facilities are visited periodically by volunteers from the Office of the Public Advocate, of which there are only 426 to cover disability and mental health facilities and SRS across the state.

Mr Eden said the facility should be immediately reviewed by the state government. 

“Obviously there’s different extremes of SRS. There are some that are offering premium aged care services to their clients but the vast majority of them I’m afraid are facilities like this.

“The state government should immediately go in and review the practises and if these residents are found to be neglected or the staff found to be underpaid or not receiving the correct entitlements it should be immediately closed down and those residents put into other facilities.”

The Courier has previously reported on another SRS where former staff and placement students said cost cutting by the proprietors was endangering the lives of vulnerable residents. 

Last year’s annual report from the Office of the Public Advocate revealed the number of assaults at SRS reported to community visitors had doubled in that financial year. This was attributed to the “complex mix” of residents, which included people who with mental illnesses and elderly and disabled people. A sexual assault of a resident at a Grampians SRS was also reported to community visitors. 

The report said residents self-harming was “rife” in SRS, and drug and alcohol use was a major issue with a direct correlation to theft, assault and violence. 

A Fair Work Ombudsman spokesperson said no investigations in Browen-Lee Homes were underway.

A DHHS spokesperson said underpayment of wages was a matter for the Ombudsman.