How common is corporate crime? Too common
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How common is corporate crime? Too common

If we’re to believe what we see in the media, we’re being engulfed by a corporate crime wave. An outbreak business lawlessness that engages in “wage theft”, mistreatment of franchisees, abuse of workers on temporary visas, and much else.

But should we believe it? Regrettably, my years as a journalist have taught me not to believe everything I read in the paper (this august organ excepted, naturally).

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon Letch

News gathering is a process of what when I was an accountant I would have called “exception reporting”. That’s because people find the exceptions more interesting than the ordinary, everyday occurrences.

When the exceptions pile up, however, the risk is that they’re taken by readers to be representative of the wider reality.

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So, in the case of businesses behaving badly, how exceptional are the exceptions? The answer from Rod Sims, chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, in a speech he gave last Friday night, is not as exceptional as you’d hope.

To prove his point, Sims offered an extraordinary list of the commission’s enforcement activity, just in the month of April this year.

Ford was ordered to pay $10 million in penalties after it admitted that it had engaged in unconscionable conduct in the way it dealt with complaints about PowerShift transmission cars, sometimes telling customers that shuddering was the result of the customer’s driving style despite knowing the problems with these cars.

Telstra was ordered to pay penalties of $10 million in relation to its third-party billing service known as “premium direct billing” under which it exposed thousands of its own mobile phone customers to unauthorised charges.

Thermomix paid penalties of more than $4.5 million for making false or misleading representations to certain customers through its silence about a safety issue affecting one of its products which the company knew about from a point in time.

Flight Centre was ordered to pay $12.5 million in penalties for attempting to induce three international airlines to enter into price-fixing agreements.

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K-Line, a Japanese shipping company, pleaded guilty to criminal cartel conduct concerning the international shipping of cars, trucks and busses to Australia.

Woolworths had proceedings instituted against it alleging that the environmental representations made about some of its Homebrand picnic products were false, misleading and deceptive.

Phew. Surely that was an exceptional month. But Sims has more cases to list.

Earlier this year, the Federal Court found that the food manufacturer Heinz had made misleading claims that its Little Kids Shredz products were beneficial for young children, when they contained about two-thirds sugar.

Who could forget the case of four Nurofen specific pain products? Their packaging claimed that each was specifically formulated to treat a particular type of pain when, in fact, each product contained the same active ingredient and was no more effective at treating that type of pain than any of the others. “The key difference was that the specific pain products were near double the price of the standard Nurofen product,” Sims said.

Nurofen products purported to be formulated to address specific causes of pain.

Nurofen products purported to be formulated to address specific causes of pain.Credit:Fairfax Media

Hotel giant Meriton was caught taking deliberate steps to prevent guests it suspected would give an unfavourable review from receiving TripAdvisor’s “review express” prompt email, including by inserting additional letters into guests’ email addresses.

The court found this to be a deliberate strategy by Meriton to minimise the number of negative reviews its guests posted on TripAdvisor.

Optus Internet recently admitted to making misleading representations to about 14,000 customers about their transition to the national broadband network, including stating that their services would be disconnected if they didn’t move to the NBN, when under its contracts it could not force disconnection within the timeframe claimed.

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Pental has admitted that it made misleading claims about its White King “flushable” cleaning wipes, saying they would disintegrate in the sewerage system when flushed, just like toilet paper, when our wastewater authorities are having big problems because the wipes can cause blockages in their systems.

Shocking. But, you may object, isn’t this just more anecdotes? How representative are they? Sims acknowledges that not all companies behave poorly.

He says that “poor behaviour usually occurs on a spectrum, with few companies behaving badly often, but rather many engaging in occasional significant instances of bad behaviour” – which, he insists, remains unacceptable.

So what can the commission and the government do to reduce the incidence of unacceptable behaviour?

Burns suffered by one Thermomix user after her machine malfunctioned.

Burns suffered by one Thermomix user after her machine malfunctioned.

Since businesses commit these excesses in their completely legitimate pursuit of higher profits, the key is to increase the cost to them of bad behaviour.

Many firms invest heavily in their brand reputation, which is a signal that they can be trusted. “The greater the likelihood that bad behaviour will be exposed and made public [see above], the more companies will do to guard against such behaviours.”

In their amoral, dollar-obsessed way, economists assess the attractions of law breaking by weighing the benefit to be gained against the cost of being caught multiplied by the probability of being caught.

Leaving aside the cost of reputational damage (just ask AMP if it knows about that), if you can’t do as much as you should to increase the chance of being caught, you should at least wack up the fines.

Sims says that “the penalties for misconduct, given the likelihood of detection, are comparatively weak”. He believes he’s had some success in persuading the Turnbull government to increase them.

“Just imagine if the penalties I mentioned [see above] were 10 to 20 times higher,” he concludes.

Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Rod Sims.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Rod Sims.

Ross Gittins is economics editor of the SMH and an economic columnist for The Age. His books include Gittins' Guide to Economics, The Happy Economist and Gittins: A life among budgets, bulldust and bastardry.

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