Operation Underpitch smashes money laundering, tax evasion and foreign worker exploitation within the NSW and ACT construction industry

Border Operations 20/07/2023
This is a joint media release by the Australian Border Force and Australian Taxation Office as part of the Serious Financial Crime Taskforce.


A joint investigation between the Australian Border Force (ABF) and Australian Taxation Office (ATO) spanning almost two-and-a-half years has led to the disruption of serious criminal behaviour by four Chinese nationals within the NSW and ACT construction industries.​

A 55-year-old Chinese national this week received a criminal conviction and fine for her involvement in money laundering, tax evasion and foreign worker exploitation within the construction industry – one of four Chinese nationals to be successfully prosecuted under Operation Underpitch.

On 24 April 2023, a Chinese national aged 22 was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment for dealing with property reasonably suspected of being proceeds of crime, while on 29 May 2023, a 27-year-old Chinese national received a sentence of 15 months imprisonment for dealing with property reasonably suspected of being proceeds of crime.

Operation Underpitch is an ABF-led investigation by the Serious Financial Crime Taskforce (SFCT). The SFCT comprises of multiple agencies including the Australian Border Force (ABF), Australian Taxation Office (ATO), Australian Federal Police (AFP), Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC), Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC), the Department of Home Affairs and Services Australia.

In October 2021, AFP with the assistance of ABF and ACIC conducted joint operational activity in the south west of Sydney, which resulted in the arrest and laying of serious charges against a fourth Chinese national, aged 30.

The man was later sentenced in October 2022 to three years, two months' imprisonment, with an 18-month non-parole period, for his role in dealing with property reasonably suspected of being proceeds of crime.

Following AFP arrests in May and October of 2021, AFP Criminal Assets Confiscation Taskforce restrained AUD$4.0 million in accounts and other assets.
The ABF has successfully disrupted organisers of the money laundering cohort through the execution of warrants in NSW and the ACT during 2022.

Collectively, these criminals have withdrawn more than AUD$137 million since arriving in Australia facilitating cash payments to foreign workers being exploited in the NSW and the ACT construction industries.

Further investigations in March 2022 conducted by ABF Field Operations revealed that during September 2020 to January 2022, an ACT target received electronic payments from eight Canberra-based construction and painting businesses.

 On 31 March 2022, Illegal Worker Warning Notices were issued to the directors of five businesses following employer awareness campaign visits.

On 11 May 2023, ABF with the support of AFP, ACIC and ACT Policing executed search warrants at a premises in the ACT in relation to the employment of unlawful non-citizens.
During the execution of the warrant, ABF officers identified 12 Chinese nationals, of which 10 were lawful non-citizens and two unlawful non-citizens.

ABF located AUD$82,000 with the assistance of AFP Detector Dogs.

During the search, a range of evidence was collected, including identity and financial documents indicating the employment of unlawful non-citizens and the suspected exploitation of foreign workers.

This warrant activity has also revealed the use of cash withdrawals to pay foreign workers in the construction industry, whilst simultaneously avoiding superannuation and PAYG tax.

The ABF issued a civil penalties infringement notice of $49,500.

ABF Commander Special Investigations Penny Spies said the diligent work sent a strong message to criminals that the ABF would continue to work side-by-side with law enforcement partners to stamp out these practices.

“Dishonest employers in the construction industry often pay workers in cash, meaning employees miss out on entitlements including superannuation. All workers deserve fair pay and fair treatment," Commander Spies said.

“We will continue to disrupt those who seek to exploit foreign workers here in Australia, and they will be brought to justice.

“Criminals who want to profit by engaging in visa and migration fraud, money laundering, tax evasion and foreign worker exploitation are firmly in our sights."

ATO Deputy Commissioner and SFCT Chief John Ford said that individuals who take part in financial crime activities are often complicit in larger criminal activities.

“These criminals are motivated by financial gain and their activities rob the Australian public of revenue to support essential services such as health and education," Mr Ford said.

“This action demonstrates that the SFCT agencies will work together on operational activity that will ultimately bring criminals to account."

The operation is ongoing and ABF will continue to work collaboratively with partner agencies to address foreign worker exploitation, tax fraud, money laundering and associated criminality.
The SFCT is an ATO-led joint-agency taskforce. It brings together the knowledge, resources and experience of relevant law enforcement and regulatory agencies to identify and address the most serious and complex forms of financial crime.

For more information on the SFCT and how to recognise the signs of financial crime visit www.ato.gov.au/SFCT and download our Serious Financial Crime Identikit.

If you are aware of foreign worker exploitation, or any suspicious or illegal immigration, visa, customs and trade activity contact www.borderwatch.gov.au


Media enquiries:

ABF Media: (02) 6264 2211