Accountants and professional advisers need to be aware of their accountability and responsibilities when it comes to matters relating to unlawful exploitation of young workers by their clients, according to Parke Lawyers.

This follows a recent case of an accounting firm being fined over involvement in a client’s breach of workplace laws.

Parke Lawyers Managing Director Jim Parke, who is also an accredited business law specialist, says it is not a defence for accountants, lawyers or human resources consultants to claim that they are just following a client’s orders.

He says the recent case should send a clear message to accountants and other advisers of risks faced by any party involved in the exploitation of vulnerable workers or in other potential breaches of the Fair Work Act 2009.

In one recent case, a Sydney-based accountant was fined $4,608 for his role in a sushi store’s unlawful exploitation of young workers.

The court also fined the restaurant operator $161,760 over an unlawful internship program at the sushi outlet on the New South Wales South Coast while the store manager and part-owner was fined $32,352.

The Fair Work Ombudsman brought action against the accountant for his involvement in preparing false records submitted when it investigated the sushi business.

Three women aged 20 and 21, and who spoke little English, came to Australia from Korea on working holiday visas.

In what was called an internship program, they were paid flat rates of between $12 and $13.50 an hour in cash for an average work week of more than 38 hours. Unlawful wage deductions were also made for accommodation.

The three were underpaid a total of $51,025 between September 2014 and July 2015.

When investigated by the Ombudsman, the accountant created false pay records purporting to show the workers had been paid much higher wage rates than was the case.

The Ombudsman has referred the accountant’s conduct to the Tax Practitioners’ Board and the Institute of Public Accountants.

Mr Parke says accountants and other professional advisers asked to provide advice to clients on their obligations under the Fair Work Act and under the various award arrangements should only take on the engagement if they know they have the depth of knowledge in this area to advise their client competently. The accessorial liability provisions of the Fair Work Act are in broad terms and any person involved in a contravention of a civil remedy provision in the Act may be liable for civil penalties.

As well as the risk of being fined and action taken by other professional regulators, there is also the risk of losing the trust of other existing or new clients.