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Law

Threats to murder workers’ families end in almost $1m in penalties

By Jack Campbell | |5 minute read

In one of the most confronting Fair Work cases ever, nearly $1 million in penalties was secured after a Canberra massage parlour threatened to have migrant workers’ families killed if they complained about underpayments.

A total of $966,890 was secured by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) in court-ordered penalties over the civil case in which seven Filipino workers were underpaid $971,092 and subjected to “coercion, discrimination and adverse action”.

“This matter is one of the most shocking cases of exploitation the Fair Work Ombudsman has ever encountered and deserves the strongest possible condemnation,” commented Fair Work Ombudsman Anna Booth.

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“The deliberate and calculated exploitation of vulnerable migrant workers has absolutely no place in Australian society. No visa holder worker should ever face employer threats to the safety of their family, or threats to be deported if they use their workplace rights to raise concerns about their employment.”

The “foot&thai” massage parlour in Belconnen was the culprit of these offences, occurring between June 2012 and February 2016. The victims – six women and one man aged in their 20s and 30s at the time of the breaches, reportedly spoke very little English and were “living in fear” of the owner and director of the parlour, Colin Kenneth Elvin.

Of the penalties, $778,100 were against the former company, and a further $150,140 penalty on top for Elvin personally. Filipino man Jun Millard Puerto was also fined $38,650 for his involvement in a number of the breaches, including the threats to workers.

Elvin and Foot & Thai Massage have also been ordered to pay a total of $1.17 million in back pay and compensation, plus interest, to the workers.

Booth continued: “These substantial penalties send a clear message that those who deliberately defy Australia’s workplace laws and shamefully exploit vulnerable migrant workers will face serious consequences. The Fair Work Ombudsman will continue to ensure the full weight of the law is felt by those involved in such appalling conduct. Visa holders in Australia have the same workplace rights as all other workers, and enforcing those rights remains an enduring priority for the Fair Work Ombudsman.”

The investigation against the company has reportedly been in the works since 2016. On top of the underpayments and threats, employees were required to work prolonged hours without overtime, often working from 9.45am to 10pm or 10.30pm six days per week.

Furthermore, six employees were required to pay $800 of their wages per fortnight back for more than eight months when the parlour wasn’t performing well.

According to FWO: “Mr Elvin, with some involvement from Mr Puerto, threatened to send the workers back to the Philippines if they told anyone about their working conditions and threatened that he would arrange for their families in the Philippines to be killed if they reported Mr Elvin or his company to the Department of Home Affairs (formerly the Department of Immigration and Border Protection).”

Underpayments of individual workers reportedly ranged from around $120,000 to $159,000.

Justice Anna Katzmann noted Elvin as the ringleader in the breaches: “He was the person who decided to underpay the massage therapists, the person who required them to work unreasonable hours, and the person who threatened them and took other adverse action against them.”

Justice Katzmann also described the breaches as deliberate, serious, and systematic. Further, it was revealed that each worker suffered “significant emotional harm and distress as a result of living in fear of [Mr Elvin] becoming angry and sending them back to the Philippines or of killing their families back in the Philippines [which they endured] for a sustained period of approximately three to four years”.

“I had the strong impression from watching and hearing them in the witness box that their suffering was ongoing,” said Justice Katzmann.

Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell

Jack is the editor at HR Leader.