Young journalists and production staff were deliberately underpaid and exploited by a Queensland news website company, an investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman has found.
As a result of legal action, Touchpoint Media and director Laurence Ward have been fined $264,924 and ordered to backpay 23 staff a total $305,780 for underpayments between January 2015 and June 2016.
The case went to the Federal Circuit Court after Fair Work inspectors investigated staff complaints and found that Touchpoint Media frequently underpaid or failed to pay for work performed at the company.
‘Vulnerable’ and ‘eager’ young workers exploited
Judge Tony Young found that Touchpoint Media focused on young journalists in their early 20s “vulnerable and eager to obtain a job” and that there was evidence that the company “especially sought out such employees”.
“I am satisfied that there was an element of exploitation involved with young employees that would have been less likely to occur with older or more experienced employees,” Judge Young said.
“I am satisfied that the experience of employment by Touchpoint, and the consequent serious underpayment of many employees, was a bitter and humiliating experience.”
Newly appointed Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said the penalty and back-payments send a message that deliberately underpaying young workers is serious conduct that will not be tolerated.
“Younger people can be particularly vulnerable in the workplace if they are less aware of their rights or reluctant to complain,” Ms Parker said.
“Any employer tempted to underpay young workers for their own benefit should think again because we will do everything within our power to ensure such conduct is met with significant consequences.”
Regional Queensland news provider
Touchpoint Media websites are prominent in regional Queensland and cover Charters Towers, Charleville, Goondiwindi, Longreach, Maranoa, Redland and Whitsundays.
Fair Work found that four workers had been underpaid more than $30,000 each, with the largest underpayment of wages and entitlements being $48,217.
Touchpoint Media and Mr Ward were also found to have breached workplace laws during the Fair Work investigation by knowingly providing false records that significantly overstated the amounts employees had been paid.
Judge Young ordered Touchpoint Media to pay $220,320 and Laurence Ward a further $44,604 for breaching workplace laws.
Touchpoint has also been ordered to commission an external audit of its compliance with the law.
The ABC has contacted Touchpoint Media for comment.
Follow Peter Ryan on Twitter @peter_f_ryan.