‘Hard’ lessons in wage underpayment case

Stephen Fanous

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

A Greater Dandenong council election candidate says he’s “learnt valuable lessons the hard way” after his business was fined for underpaying workers more than $130,000 in 2012-‘14.

Stephen Fanous, who is running for Keysborough South ward, is the managing director of A & S Wholesale Fruit and Vegetables that was fined $243,000 in the Federal Circuit Court in 2019.

The company trades as MarketPlace Fresh in Dandenong Plaza and Parkmore shopping centre.

Mr Fanous, a company partner at the time, was found to be involved in most of the company’s breaches including underpaying three workers below minimum entitlements at four stores including florist outlets in Parkmore and Dandenong.

A & S and its senior managers’ conduct was “serious”, with the underpayments “substantial” and continuing across an extended period, Judge John O’Sullivan said in his ruling.

Two of the workers were paid in an “off the books” and “on the books” payment system that made it difficult to determine the underpayments, the judge said.

The falsified employment records and non-compliant book-keeping were the “gravest” of the contraventions, he said.

Mr Fanous and operations manager Etherah Louli were fined $30,000 and $13,000 respectively.

The under-entitlements were repaid in full.

Mr Fanous said the company had since installed specialised electronic payroll, rostering and back-up storage systems to ensure there was no repeat breaches.

“I have learnt some valuable lessons the hard way.

“The lack of strength and sophistication of our systems and processes during the events in question posed significant issues for the business.”

He took responsibility as “any strong industry leader should be expected to do” and put “pillars in place” to protect employees’ rights and improve its financial governance.

“In some ways, I am thankful for the hard lessons learnt.

“It has shined the light on the innovation required within my business at the time.

“Six years on, we are now stronger than ever and are continuing to provide job opportunities within the community on an increasingly larger scale.”

In 2015, A&S was embroiled in controversy after an ex-staff member posted photos of vermin and claimed “appalling” food safety and hygiene at its Fountain Gate store.

However, health authorities at the time cleared the store of the allegations.

The photos by a “disgruntled ex-staff member” did not appear to have been taken at the company’s outlets, Mr Fanous said.

“We firmly stand by our comments that we continue to maintain a high level of food safety compliance across the business.”