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Caltex protest leader accused of underpayment

Mr Sharma acted as spokesperson for the recent Caltex franchisee protest in Sydney. Image: C&I Week

A Caltex franchisee who acted as spokesperson for a recent protest march in Sydney has accused the company of targeting his business for termination, for his speaking out against the Caltex franchise model.

Caltex Australia has called on franchisee Sanjeev Sharma to remedy 13 breaches of his franchise agreement, which include allegations of tampering with use-by dates on donut packages, and employee underpayment.

Mr Sharma said notice of the breaches, including alleged failure to comply with an audit notice, was delivered two days after the protest.

“They are trying to prove to Caltex franchisees that if you do anything like this, we will get you,” he said.

“They are trying to suppress the course of justice. It’s a total kneejerk reaction to the protest.”

On March 1 this year around 70 Caltex franchisees marched to the Caltex Australia headquarters to protest against wage underpayment audits and imminent notices of breach.

In a statement to C&I Week, Caltex Australia managing director Julian Segal reiterated his position on the matter of auditing and investigation of underpayment.

“Caltex Australia has been fair and reasonable in our conduct of wage underpayment audits and provided franchisees with fair and reasonable opportunity to remedy or explain breaches of their agreements with Caltex Australia, including breaches of Australian workplace laws,” he said.

“Our stance on fraud is non-negotiable: there is no excuse for wage or visa fraud.  We will not allow the honest, hard-working majority of franchisees to be unfairly affected by the inappropriate actions of others.”

A spokesperson for Caltex Australia told C&I Week: “Caltex Australia’s timeline has been driven by conducting a thorough wage underpayment audit process”.

On allegations of underpayment, Mr Sharma said that an employee who worked at one of his stores in September last year for “five or six shifts” was involved, but that he had not previously been made aware of this by the company.

“From September onwards until now we were not informed of anything about this person, that they had received a complaint. We’ve been totally in the dark,” he said.

“We had the protest on Wednesday, and on Friday they issued the breaches saying this.

“We were not even told that there was an issue…over the last 8 months they never spoke to me, never raised any concerns, never put anything in writing to me about the whole incident, that they are alleging.”

Mr Sharma’s legal representative, Tean Kerr, said the audit notice related only to the 2016 financial year so the breach could not possibly relate to this employee.

“Mr Sharma produced documents in response to an audit of his 2016 financial year and this employee was not employed during that time,” he said.

“Accordingly the breach relied upon by Caltex in relation to this employee clearly did not arise out of the audit. Caltex has been investigating Mr Sharma’s franchises since August 2016 and commenced an audit in September 2016.

“Mr Sharma has cooperated and produced documents in answer to the audit. Notably however the current 13 breach notices issued by Caltex to Mr Sharma do not relate to the produced documents; they relate to entirely unrelated matters.”

Among the breaches, Mr Sharma admitted that he failed to notify the company of a change of shareholding from his mother five years ago, and was happy to make any remedial action.

However, he says the allegation that he had changed use-by dates on packets of donuts was not true.

“One of the breaches was that I had been selling expired donuts, and changing the date on the donut wrappers and selling them,” he explained.

“And the best part is, they didn’t realise they made a huge mistake in this: I do not sell wrapped donuts.”

Mr Kerr said the matter of the donuts indicated the triviality of the breaches relied upon by Caltex, demonstrating that the company was “attempting to do everything possible” to terminate Mr Sharma’s franchise agreement.

“By issuing the breaches regarding donuts, it tends to suggest that there is some improper motive on Caltex’s behalf. In similar cases the Courts have found that such oppressive behavior can constitute unconscionable conduct,” he said.

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