A mobile app that tackles that persistent problem of young and migrant workers across Australia being underpaid has, not surprisingly, been downloaded more than 14,000 times since its launch in March.
‘Record My Hours’ – created by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) in conjunction with Ansible over 10 months – uses geofencing GPS technology to automatically record a worker’s time at work while capturing other information about their employment.
Nicky Chaffer, executive director, compliance education at the FWO told CIO Australia that while most employers want to do the right thing, the department sees many examples of records that are either missing information or, in some cases, deliberately misleading.
“For example, in the six months to December 2016, almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of the cases the FWO filed in court included alleged record-keeping or pay slip contraventions,” Chaffer said.
She said if records are incomplete, misleading or non-existent, it can be difficult to determine an employee’s work hours and therefore determine whether they have received their lawful entitlements.
“Our inspectors go to great lengths in attempts to reconstruct an employee’s work schedule. We have translated personal diaries into English, camped outside workplaces to observe worker schedules and used data from toll roads to help establish when someone has been at work,” Chaffer said.
“However, regrettably we continue to see a number of cases where the employer’s lack of records means there is insufficient evidence to prove to a court that an employee was working and therefore entitled to be paid.”
This is where the app makes a difference because it allows employees to maintain their own diary of work hours that can be used as a resources should concerns regarding their pay arise. It also serves as a backup if their employer has not met their obligations and maintained accurate or complete employment records.
Despite its success so far, the National Farmers Federation in March called for the app to be withdrawn, arguing that it was not convinced an app would tackle worker exploitation issues. Farm groups claimed the app encourages staff to spy on their bosses and won’t help create better work conditions.
A National Farmers Federation spokesperson told CIO Australia that the organisation’s position on the app has not changed.
“Time and resources have prevented us from taking any further action, although it remains on our radar and we may take further action in the future,” the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, Chaffer said the FWO sees many examples of records that are either deliberately misleading or so sub-standard that it’s not even possible to conduct an audit and determine whether staff are being paid their correct entitlements.
Young and migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation in the workplace as they’re often not fully aware of their workplace rights and can be reluctant to complain, particularly if there are cultural and language barriers, Chaffer said.
“This vulnerability is compounded when workers do not have access to accurate records about their pay and hours of work.”
Chaffer told CIO Australia that cases where a business has kept false records or no records at all sometimes end up being taken to court.
In one case involving a 7-Eleven operator, the employer issued pay slips that overstated the rate actually paid to workers, delivering incorrect information to the retail chain’s payroll and repeatedly providing false records to the FWO.
“After full admissions were eventually made, total penalties of more than $400,000 were ordered against the operating company and director,” Chaffer said.
In another case currently before the court, the FWO is alleging that records kept by a labour-hire company were so poor that inspectors could only complete audits for five of the 265 mostly migrant staff engaged by the firm.
Overcoming GPS drain
The app uses smartphone native location services through GPS and mobile phone tower/Wi-Fi proximity to detect worker’s start and finish times based on their location.
GPS use can drain modern smartphone batteries in a few hours which meant the FWO needed to use optimised “battery friendly” strategies to automatically detect when a user is at work. The app integrates weighted location metrics of Wi-Fi access points in conjunction with battery-efficient geofencing to fine-tune GPS polling frequency.
Prior to the app’s development, FWO and Ansible’s project team tested a prototype to understand what users expected, what they like, didn’t like, and why, said Chaffer.
FWO recruited young and migrant workers to test the prototype and provide feedback. The project team then completed a further round of market testing of the app with most functions working with a new group of employees from the target market.
“The feedback was overwhelmingly positive,” said Chaffer. Testers understood the app’s purpose and were easily able to perform critical functions like ‘add a job’ and ‘add a shift.’ Importantly, all users strongly agreed that the app is useful with most finding it easy to learn and use.”