Crown under investigation for wage theft

Casino giant Crown Resorts underpaid hundreds of workers at its venues including at its centrepiece Southbank complex, becoming the latest big company to admit to breaching Australia’s workplace laws.

The Age and Sydney Morning Herald have confirmed the casino business, to be subject to a royal commission after its links to money laundering were exposed – is under investigation by workplace regulator the Fair Work Ombudsman.

Crown, Victoria’s largest single-site employer, said it had self-reported the underpayments to the regulator. “Crown self-initiated a comprehensive assessment of its workforce following media reporting of widespread underpayment issues, particularly in the hospitality industry,” a company spokeswoman said.

Crown is under investigation for underpaying staff.Credit:Chris Hopkins

An investigation by The Age and Herald across 2018 and 2019 exposed widespread underpayment in hospitality including at high-profile restaurants at Crown such as Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner by Heston and the then Neil-Perry fronted Rockpool Bar & Grill.

Dinner by Heston, which was owned through a Caribbean tax haven, collapsed in early 2020 owing workers at least $4.5 million in underpayments.

The underpayments at Crown now under investigation are separate to those of its restaurant tenants. The company spokeswoman said the assessment was ongoing.

“Our expectation is that only a small proportion of our employees are potentially impacted, and that the majority of employees impacted are not covered by an enterprise agreement,” she said.

Crown would not confirm the total size of the underpayments but with hundreds underpaid, it would probably run into at least hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions.

The United Workers Union, which represents many of the casino workers on-site, was told of the underpayments only after the inquiries by The Age. The union’s casinos director Dario Mujkic said the underpayments were of concern.

“Initial discussions with Crown indicate that these underpayments primarily affect the parts of their workforce that are not covered by union collective agreements,” he said.

“If any of our members are impacted by this we will expect any monies owed repaid in full and quickly. The risk of underpaying workers is best avoided when those workers have a union agreement and are educated about their rights and entitlements through their union.”

The Fair Work Ombudsman, which has been swamped by underpayment cases in recent years, confirmed the investigation and said Crown had self-reported.

Ombudsman Sandra Parker said they are under pressure from the number of underpayment casesCredit:Jason South

“We expect any employers that identify non-compliance to report to the FWO and fully cooperate with our investigation to ensure that employees are quickly repaid any outstanding entitlements,” the spokeswoman said. “Any workers with concerns about their pay should contact us directly for assistance.”

The Crown underpayments come amid an ongoing inquiry into wage theft by a Senate economics committee with one day of hearings held last September. Another two days of hearings are scheduled in March.

Appearing before that inquiry, Ombudsman Sandra Parker said her organisation had been forced to redeploy staff due to the surge in the number of big corporates under investigation.

“We are under some pressure,” she said. “We’ve been under pressure because of the re-focusing of our work, if you like, on the corporate sector underpayments.”

Investigations by The Age have exposed underpayments at dozens of businesses, including at Coles, McDonald’s, 7-Eleven, at large franchises, high-profile restaurants and on farms. Last June, the Victorian Parliament passed legislation to make deliberate underpayment of wages a crime. The new laws do not come into effect until mid-2021.

The federal government’s omnibus bill, which includes making wage theft a crime, recently passed the lower house but will probably face opposition in the Senate to other parts of the proposed changes.

Crown’s future as the operator of its giant Melbourne complex is in doubt after the recent calling of the royal commission by the Andrews government into whether it was suitable to hold a gaming licence.

The $5 million royal commission, to be run by former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein, will be required to say whether any Victorian law should be changed after the company’s links with organised crime and money laundering were revealed in reports in The Age and Herald, and a scathing NSW inquiry.

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