The Fair Work Ombudsman has secured a total of $204,000 in penalties in court against Ruchika Sharma and her company Riddhi Siddhi Pty Ltd – the operators of Vege Rama, a Brisbane fast food business after they used false records to try to frustrate an investigation.
The Federal Circuit and Family Court has imposed a $185,000 penalty against Riddhi Siddhi Pty Ltd, which operates the ‘Vege Rama’ fast food outlet and an associated commercial kitchen in Fortitude Valley.
The Court has imposed an additional $19,000 penalty against company director Ruchika Sharma.
The Fair Work Ombudsman investigated after receiving a request for assistance from a Nepalese visa holder who was employed as a casual kitchenhand at the commercial kitchen from April 2018 to August 2019.
Most of the penalties have been imposed in response to Riddhi Siddhi breaching the Fair Work Act by making false records and providing them to Fair Work Inspectors during the investigation.
Riddhi Siddhi also breached the Fair Work Act by giving false or misleading payslips to an employee and failing to comply with a Compliance Notice requiring the company to back-pay the worker, who worked up to 66 hours per week and was paid $11 to $13 an hour.
The company back-paid the worker $59,400, plus interest and superannuation, only after the Fair Work Ombudsman commenced legal action.
Ms Sharma was involved in provision of the false records to Fair Work Inspectors and the failure to comply with the Compliance Notice.
Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said employers who use false records to try to frustrate an investigation into underpayment allegations will face serious consequences.
“Falsifying records and providing them to the Fair Work Ombudsman is extremely serious conduct and it will be met with the strongest possible enforcement action,” Ms Parker said.
“Employers also need to be aware that taking action to protect vulnerable workers, including visa holders, and improve compliance in the fast food, restaurant and café sector continue to be priorities for the FWO. Any employees with concerns about their pay or entitlements should contact us for free advice and assistance.”
Judge Salvatore Vasta found that operators of Vege Rama, Riddhi Siddhi Pty Ltd and its director Ruchika Sharma had falsified records to make it appear the Nepalese worker had been paid Award rates and provided the records to the FWO in “an attempt to obfuscate the truth and to ensure that any proper investigation was never able to be pursued”.
“The severity and seriousness of what (Riddhi Siddhi and Ms Sharma) have done cannot be overstated. This was a deception that went to the heart of the fair industrial and employment system of this country,” Judge Vasta said.
“The need for the Court to impose a deterrent penalty, not just specifically but, very importantly, generally to all others who may be tempted to somehow pervert what it is that the Fair Work Act is doing with regard to the proper balance between the rights of employers and the rights of employees, must be made clear,” Judge Vasta said.
“The Courts will simply not tolerate such brazen contraventions of the intentions of the Commonwealth Parliament.”
Judge Vasta described the conduct as “extremely difficult to detect”.
“If it were not for the employee having the sense to take photographs of each of the time sheets, if it were not for the employee going to work via public transport and using a go card, and if it were not for the employee having a Google phone that was able to GPS-track his movements for over six months, the scheme, or device, used by (Riddhi Siddhi and Ms Sharma) would never have unravelled as it has now,” Judge Vasta said.
The Fair Work Ombudsman has an agreement with the Department of Home Affairs, called the Assurance Protocol, where visa holders can ask for our help without fear of their visa being cancelled for breaches of their work-related visa conditions.
Employers and employees can visit www.fairwork.gov.au or call the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94 for free advice and assistance about their rights and obligations in the workplace. An interpreter service is available on 13 14 50.