Judge hears case of $3 an hour workers

The Federal Court in Perth has heard allegations on behalf of the Fair Work Ombudsman that foreign workers on an oil rig off the coast of Western Australia were paid less than three dollars an hour.

The Ombudsman's barrister Paul Menzies QC said he would argue that the rigs were permanently attached to the sea-bed, meaning they were subject to Australian employment laws, which such a rate of pay would contravene.

The Fair Work Ombudsman took action in 2011, alleging four men were underpaid a combined $127,425 over nearly two years while working on two North-West Shelf oil rigs operated by Woodside Petroleum.

The Filipino painters received US$900 for 28 days of work, in which they worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day.

It has since emerged the oil rig's manager, Maersk Drilling, was allegedly paying Perth recruiter SurveySpec $400 a day for each painter, but the workers received less than 10 per cent of that.

SurveySpec hired the employees from SOS for $US92 a day. And SOS hired the men from Pocomwell, which was paying them about $US30 a day.

The men were paid $US900 a month for 84 hours of work a week.

The hearing, heard before Justice Michael Barker follows a battle by two foreign companies to keep the matter out of court by claiming they, nor their Filipino employees, are subject to Australian laws.

Mr Menzies argued that the crew on the vessel were mostly Australian residents which he said meant the operation was covered by the Fair Work Act, a claim the respondents are expected to challenge.

"It's plain that beyond any doubt at all in any case 50 per cent plus one at least were Australian residents," he said.

The parties, including Pocomwell, Supply Oilfield Services, Maersk and SurveySpec, argued that an Australian court was a ''clearly inappropriate forum'' to hear matters about their obligations to Filipino painters working in an exclusive economic zone.

They also claimed that Australia's Fair Work Act did not apply to fixed platforms and "Australian-majority crewed ships", and that Pocomwell and SOS were only obliged to follow Philippine employment laws.

But Justice Barker found that Australia's Federal Court was an appropriate forum because the ombudsman wanted to apply the Fair Work Act and ''there is no prospect that any alternative foreign forum would be available to determine the rights and duties of workers'' under that Act.

The Fair Work Act covers fixed platforms within the exclusive economic zone.

SurveySpec hired the employees from SOS for $US92 a day. And SOS hired the men from Pocomwell, which was paying them about $US30 a day.

The men were paid $US900 a month for 84 hours of work a week.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has also taken action against SurveySpec and its sole director, Thomas Civiello, alleging the three companies and Mr Civiello were involved in 11 breaches.

Companies face maximum penalties of $33,000 per breach, while individuals face maximum penalties of $6600 per breach.

The employees worked on the Nanhai VI rig, which is owned by Chinese oil company CNOOC.

The hearing continues in the Federal Court.

-With Lucy Battersby

This story Judge hears case of $3 an hour workers first appeared on WA Today.