Tradie Raids

Reporter: Laura Sparkes

"It's a real battle," said Les.

"If you're an unlicensed tradesman and trying to work as one, these guys will eventually get you," Michael said.

"This is me car, don't push the door on me," one tradesmen yelled at Matt.

"So either get licensed or get out of the industry," Michael said.

Unlicensed tradies flooding the market, advertising in suburban newspapers across Australia targeting pensioners and struggling families wanting cheap building work.

"You're making it worse for yourself, we're going to be prosecuting you for today," Matt warned another tradesman.

"The message we want to send to these people is that you will not know if the next call you get could be a customer or NSW fair trading inviting you around for a sting operation so," Michael said. "He just seemed so professional, he had a professional manner, he had his suitcase with him, his paperwork, pictures, drawings, it just never crossed my mind that he wasn't licensed," Sheila recalled.

"This is a major problem it's a priority matter for us," Les from the Department of Fair Trade said.

"Well I'm a painter by trade," said one painter under investigation. "Do you have a licence," investigators asked. "No, no," he replied.

They're under quoting for substandard work, taking your money and running, costing pensioners and families millions every year in defective work.

"I'm out of pocket 2000 dollars," Sheila said. This is a list of unlicensed contractors it's just a small number, a small instance of the number of people out there doing unlicensed work. The majority will intend not to do the work, the majority will intend to make a start on the work, get a large deposit, get a progress payment or two knowing full well they won't complete the job," Les said.

Tonight, we go undercover with the department of Fair Trading witnessing firsthand their five-day sting operation to catch out tradies breaking all the rules. This has expired back in 2003" Les informed one tradesman."The licence," he asked. "yep" "Its renewed," he defended. "No mate, it's not," Les asserted.

"It was just a disaster, 6 months down the track I was without a bathroom, for about 3 months I was showering in the back yard," Sheila said. Sheila Bilton regrets that she didn't ask her bathroom renovator one question. Are you licensed? "When he started to do the tiling, I knew something was wrong, I used to speak to him and say this is not good enough this is not professional," Sheila said. "You can see the widths of the gaps and the messy way he's done it and left it. This goes from wide to narrow, yeah skinny," she demonstrated.

Sheila went to the NSW Dept of Fair Trading to complain. At a tribunal hearing it was revealed the tradesman was unlicensed. He was ordered to redo the work with licensed workers but Sheila still ended up forking out more to fix the bathroom."Contractors who don't have a licence tend to be unqualified, inexperienced, and the potential is there to do a less than satisfactory job," Les said.

Les Wrigley is manager for Home Building Investigations at the NSW Department of Fair Trading. It's his department's job to rid the industry of unlicensed tradies. "People can be satisfied that the licensed people are qualified, experienced and have some financial backing to their business so the potential for problems is diminished," Les said. But for those who dodge the law and work unlicensed, if they're caught they're fined.

"We go out and visit construction sites, residential building sites, our investigators go on site unannounced they ask people on site to produce ID, they're questioned about the work they're doing, and they're asked to provide evidence of a licence," Les said.

"Today we're doing a covert op to try and attract unlicensed traders," an investigator revealed. "He's exited van and walking to premises - copy that," the investigator said.

Investigators are in a quiet suburban street, waiting. It's day one of Operation Lease. While one team member films each tradesman during their quoting session, the rest wait for the call to pounce. "We're trying to send a clear message to unlicensed traders that your behaviour is not acceptable within the community and eventually you will get caught," the investigator warned.

"Yeah guys I'm going to location now," the investigator said. Another investigator gets out and walks down the street. "I'm on the move mate," he says.

Because this painter is unlicensed the department immediately slaps a 500 dollar fine on him. If he disputes it he ends up in the court system

His licence expired 3 months ago, "Mate I've been doing it for 34 years Ill get a new licence its not a drama," the painter said.

"I've spoken to you before haven't I?" the investigator asked. "yep," said the roofer. This roofer has been caught before by the department. "I dont know it off by heart but I know I'm licensed," another tradesman defended. "Its renewed," he argued. "No mate its not,""It's renewed," he persisted. The tradesman phoned a friend to ask, "What's the licence number, they reckon we haven't renewed it."

While he rings his partner to get the number, investigators double check that the licence is expired. "Does this thing have to be in me face? Don't push the door on me," the tradesman said. So the debate is raging behind us, the tiler says he is licensed but all the department of fair trading records say he isn't. "If you leave we'll just go straight to prosecution," the investigator warned. "Mate I'm not going to f*%$ with you but I'm telling you I'm licensed," the tradesman defended. "Well what's your address then?" "I'm not telling you," he ended.

"They do tend to get angry and aggressive but that's part of the job," Michael said.The department's director of mediation services Michael Cooper explains the dangers of confronting some unlicensed tradies. "If anyone gets too aggressive we'll let them go but we would follow up, we wont give up, but we wont escalate this into violence we'll let him go if that needs to occur and follow up later," Michael said.

The tradesman left and the investigators pursued another. "Do you have a licence?" "Yeah of course, I paid for the new one yesterday actually (hands over licence)." This builder is well known to the department. They have multiple complaints made against him issuing $7000 worth of infringement notices to his company but he's denying everything."Have you had any dealings with fair trading before," the investigators asked "No," he denied. He's using a minor maintenance licence to quote for major work on this house worth between $15000 - 17,000. "You'd agree that is outside your licence," investigators said. "Really," the tradesman questioned. "They issued you 7 thousand dollars worth of fines," Michael said. "Where's all the paperwork, I have no idea what's going on," the tradesman said. "That is not an appropriate licence for the sort of work you're seeking here," investigators advised. This painter quoted to paint the entire house

"The scope of that licence does not allow you to paint the whole of this property do you understand that?" Investigators said. Over 5 days the operation netted 15 tradies all unlicensed. They were slapped with fines. The department's advice was always ask to see the tradies licence and check it against the department's list on the website. "During the last 12 months we've issued 250 thousand dollars worth of penalty notices, we've visited 2000 building sites and spoken to about 2500 individuals on site," Les said.

Last year NSW recorded 8600 complaints against tradespeople. Victoria received 4500 complaints.176 in Tasmania, South Australia registered 1360 complaints. Western Australia 1345, The Northern Territory recorded 128 and in Queensland there were 236 complaints.

"Always check to see if a tradesman has a licence and to ask if he has references and to see his previous work. That's what I would do in the future," Sheila stressed. I paid him 5 and a half thousand dollars over 12 months I was left with a shoddy bathroom so now I've paid out 2000 dollars out of my own pocket for various tradesmen to come and fix it," Sheila recalled.

Department of Consumer Protection

www.docep. wa.gov.au

1300 30 40 54