Australia’s largest energy retailer, Origin Energy, has been slapped with close to half a million dollars in fines after cutting power and gas to struggling Victorians without providing any clear payment help options.
Origin self-reported the breaches to Victoria’s Essential Services Commission (ESC) which found that, between February 2019 and February 2020, the retailer had failed to adequately inform 349 customers about payment alternatives before their lights were cut and hot water switched off.
“Disconnection of an essential service is a huge step,” said ESC Commissioner Sitesh Bhojani in a statement. “It really must be a last resort because of its essential nature.”
“There are many reasons why a customer may struggle to meet an energy debt—language barriers, domestic violence, and financial difficulties are just a few examples,” Bhojani said.
The commission charged Origin $450,000 for multiple violations of the Energy Retail Code, which states that retailers must use their “best endeavours to contact the customer” and “provide clear and unambiguous information about the assistance available” prior to disconnection.
“Energy retailers must offer a range of assistance—including flexible payments or bill deferrals, and information about the relief grants and energy concessions that may be available—before disconnecting their customers,” Bhojani said.
An Origin spokesperson said that the information had, in fact, been presented previously, but conceded that the final messages did not clearly outline the options for customers.
“The required information was provided to these customers in earlier communications,” the Origin spokesperson told The Epoch Times. “We regret these options were not reinforced in the final SMS sent to them after their disconnection warning notice.”
The spokesperson added that Origin had worked quickly to modify its policy and remediate the impact on customers, with the retailer compensating customers a further $502,857 on top of the $450,000 payout.
“We identified this breach through our own processes and self-reported it to the regulator, and since then have apologised to and compensated the affected customers, and improved our processes and communications,” the spokesperson said.
But Bhojani issued a warning to all essential service providers, highlighting the critical need to apply compassion towards struggling households and businesses amidst the financially challenging times of COVID-19 lockdowns.
“Because of the lockdowns and the fact that many people haven’t been working or have lost their businesses, there are going to be issues of businesses and households struggling with paying their bills—not just their energy bills, probably all bills.”
This news of the fines comes as recent estimates have shown that lockdowns in Victoria, New South Wales, and South Australia cost $2.8 billion per week, with Western Australia’s most recent 4-day lockdown taking a $245 million chunk out of state businesses.
Data has also revealed that lockdowns in Sydney saw 214,400 jobs evaporate in three weeks, equivalent to all jobs recovered in the 2020-21 financial year following the initial surge of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus.
Further, Australians who are struggling financially have been pummeled as energy and gas prices have skyrocketed, with coal plant outages forcing average electricity costs to triple across the east coast and South Australia.