United Petroleum has been accused of frustrating an investigation into whether the petrol giant is liable for underpayments in its franchise network by refusing to hand over records.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has launched legal action against the franchisor in the Federal Court, alleging it breached the Fair Work Act by failing to provide any records or documents demanded in a notice to produce delivered to a senior executive.

According to court documents, the FWO personally served chief operating officer David Szymczak the notice in November last year in relation to underpayments at a Brisbane franchisee in Cooper Plains.

The regulator had found the outlet, run by Parashar’s Pty Ltd from mid-2017, was breaching workplace laws and award requirements until its agreement with United Petroleum was terminated in June last year.

The notice said the FWO was now investigating whether United Petroleum knew, or could reasonably have been expected to know, that the exploitation was likely to occur as per new laws introduced by the Coalition in 2017 to hold franchisors accountable.

However, the company failed to produce any of the requested documents relevant to the investigation by the deadline, a month later.

As late as last week, United Petroleum had still “not made unconditional production of any records or documents” in relation to the notice, the FWO claimed.

United Petroleum’s alleged lack of corporation is unheard of for a major corporation.

The regulator’s extraordinary action comes as United Petroleum has refused to enter into a compliance partnership with the FWO for the past two years despite multiple invitations to do so.

The FWO has been investigating the company, which has 440 petrol outlets across the country, since 2015.

Following raids of a dozen outlets in 2017 it found 40 per cent were exploiting workers, including significantly underpaying wages to foreign workers on visas.

FWO Sandra Parker said taking action to enforce compliance with notices to produce was fundamental for protecting the integrity of workplace laws.

“Notices to produce are an important tool that Fair Work inspectors use to obtain documents we require for our investigations and businesses that fail to comply with these requests could face court action,” she said.

“Franchisors and franchisees should also be aware that enforcing compliance with workplace laws in the franchising sector continues to be a priority for the FWO.”

United Petroleum faces a penalty of up to $63,000 for the alleged breach. The FWO is also seeking a court order requiring it to provide the records and documents requested so the FWO’s investigation can continue.

A directions hearing is listed in the Federal Court in Melbourne on November 6.

Extracted from AFR