Here we go again. This time it is oil giant Caltex embroiled in allegations of worker exploitation happening across a national franchise network of more than 650 stores.

Allegations of goons turning up at night to pressure a former Caltex worker to keep his mouth shut, then sending someone to visit his family in Pakistan, some workers paid $12 an hour, some sleeping on mattresses to reduce travel time, some franchisees sponsoring workers on a visa or paying their education so they can stay in this country and work for peanuts, are just a few of the allegations being made by workers and former workers.

This is all going on as the Fair Work Ombudsman conducts a series of site raids across the country. Caltex says that in the past year it decided to take a more forensic approach to assess its franchise network by conducting its own audits. Of the eight franchisees audited, five were terminated for misconduct. It is a high strike rate.

It is investigating another 11 franchisees who control 22 sites.

On the surface this sounds like everything is in hand. But is it? Firstly, the regulator tipped off Caltex a couple of weeks ago that it was going to conduct site raids. Not surprisingly, Caltex then warned its franchisees that Fair Work was set to pounce.

Fair Work didn’t reveal when or who it was going to target but it meant all franchisees have been on high alert since they received the letter from Caltex. This prompted some franchisees to coach their workers to lie about what they were really getting paid.

The problem with tip-offs is it allows dodgy franchisees to tamper with evidence. Professor Allan Fels, who, until July was running a compensation panel for the scandal-ridden 7-Eleven convenience store giant, says his panel conducted raids on 50 stores. The franchisees didn’t see it coming. “Once the word spread, the evidence gathering became less fruitful than the earlier ones,” he said.

Fair Work has done a lot with a limited budget and weak penalties to try and fight rampant wage fraud across many industries.

But it needs to take a hard look at its policy of advanced warnings if it wants to get to the bottom of what’s really going on.

Extracted from The Age.