PHOTO: A Sydney suburb from overhead. Real estate agents have been accused of double dipping millions of dollars in jobkeeper payments. Photograph: mikulas1/Getty Images/iStock

Tax office investigates agencies allegedly forcing sales agents to repay taxpayer wage subsidy out of their commission

Real estate agencies are under scrutiny by the Australian Taxation Office after being accused of “double dipping” millions of dollars in jobkeeper payments by forcing sales agents to repay the taxpayer-funded subsidy.

The Real Estate Employers Federation has given its 1,700 members legal advice that the practice, in which agents repay jobkeeper out of their commissions so that employers keep the benefit of the subsidy, is perfectly legal.

The federation’s chief executive, Bryan Wilcox, denied it amounted to double dipping and said it was “absolutely not” unethical.

“I think it would be negligent to say to someone, you should do this because of some moral position, because the alternative might be they shut their doors,” he told Guardian Australia.

However, the ATO said schemes to claw back wages payments were in its sights and warned there were penalties for making false jobkeeper claims. It said it could also refer cases to the Fair Work Ombudsman.

“Under jobkeeper, the obligation is to pay employees the minimum wage condition, being the amount of jobkeeper claimed by the employer for the employee,” an ATO spokeswoman told the Guardian.

“If we identify contrived arrangements where employers seek to claw back the wages they have paid to employees, we will consider application of our scheme provisions and there are penalties for entering into schemes.”

It comes after controversy over executive bonuses and payments to shareholders that have been fuelled by jobkeeper money.

The Labor frontbencher Andrew Leigh said jobkeeper was meant to support workers, not company owners.

“Yet some real estate employers seem to think it’s OK to claw back jobkeeper from their workforce,” he said.