“Pay your people properly”: wage theft scandal reaches new peak
With yet another wave of businesses admitting to wage theft, the federal government’s message to employers was blunt: “pay your people properly”.
Attorney-General Christian Porter made the comment in the wake of news that Coles, Target and Super Retail Group (owner of Rebel Sport and Super Cheap Auto) would add their names to the shameful wage theft roll call (see list below).
The endemic nature of wage theft among Australian corporations is at the expense of workers, who are owed millions in wage and superannuation payments.
IEUA-QNT Branch Secretary Terry Burke said a lack of regulatory oversight, government complacency and an attitude among many employers that wage theft is simply part of the business model had contributed to the current situation.
“The broad impacts of wage theft have been allowed to languish unaddressed for many years,” Mr Burke said.
“It is only recently – following media investigations and threats to ‘name and shame’ culpable businesses – that we have seen an increased appetite among governments to take action.”
Mr Burke said unions had worked hard to address wage theft on a case-by-case basis and frequently succeeded in winning back wages for members.
“Unions are fighting endless battles to ensure members are paid properly, but it’s clearly time for a systemic solution,” Mr Burke said.
“It’s time for governments and business to get serious about dealing with wage theft.
“In a country as privileged as ours, it is unacceptable for any worker, and particularly lower-paid and vulnerable workers, to have their wages stolen.”
Wage theft roll call
- Coles – $20 million
- Target – $9 million
- Super Retail Group – $61.2 million
- Bunnings – $4 million
- Woolworths – $300 million
- Dinner by Heston (restaurant group established by Heston Blumenthal) – $4.5 million
- Rockpool Group (Neil Perry fronted restaurant group) – $10 million
- Michael Hill (jewellery chain) – $25 million
- Made Establishment (George Calombaris restaurant group) – $7.83 million
- Wesfarmers – $15 million
- Eagers (car dealership chain) – $4.5 million
- Sunglass Hut – $2.3 million
- Commonwealth Bank – $4.8 million
Queensland government proposes laws to criminalise wage theft
The Queensland government has announced proposed laws to include wage theft in the criminal code, vindicating a prolonged union campaign to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation.
The amended laws would mean deliberate underpayment of employees would result in serious penalties - including up to 14 years' imprisonment in the most serious cases.
Employees would also have access to steamlined systems to reclaim stolen wages.
The laws are due to be introduced to parliament next month.
Peak union body, the Queensland Council of Unions (QCU) welcomed the proposed laws.
“Making serious and deliberate wage theft a criminal offence shows that Queensland is serious about stamping out wage theft,” said QCU General Secretary Michael Clifford.
“Unions have successfully called for the introduction of labour hire licensing, making industrial manslaughter punishable by jail, and now it’s time to bring wage theft into the criminal code,” he said.
Federal action on wage theft under consideration
A national response to the wage theft crisis is now under consideration, with a federal government inquiry currently underway.
The inquiry is due to report its recommendations to address wage theft to the Senate by 3 December 2020.
The stories of union members who have experienced wage theft first-hand will be included in submissions to the inquiry from peak union bodies, including the QCU.
Members can share their wage theft stories through the QCU’s stop wage theft website.
The federal inquiry follows a 2018 Queensland state government inquiry that resulted in a report entitled, A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work: exposing the true cost of wage theft in Queensland.
The report estimated wage theft costs in Queensland alone at $1.22 billion per year, plus an additional $1.12 billion in unpaid superannuation.
The Queensland government accepted all of the report’s 17 recommendations to address wage theft; however, 11 of the recommendations require action from the federal government.
In a submission to the federal inquiry, the Queensland government urged the federal government to take “long overdue” action and implement the recommendations.
If implemented these recommendations would bring an end to WorkChoices era zombie agreements, give greater power to the federal regulator, address sham contracting, regulate the labour hire industry and reduce the burden of the wage recovery process upon employees.
Any members who believe they may have been or are currently being underpaid, should get in touch with our union’s industrial team for support.