Continued wage theft has been waved through by the Morrison Government after it scrapped its own legislation to deal with the issue last week.
As its woeful Omnibus Industrial Relations Bill was sailing off into oblivion in the Senate last week, Acting Minister for Industrial Relations Michaela Cash decided to retaliate by cutting the one aspect of the legislation that all parties could live with.
The most modest of protections for workers against the wage theft business model were benched in a fit of pique that continues to leave millions of Australian workers vulnerable to bad employers engaging in wage theft.
Tim Kennedy is the National Secretary of the United Workers Union (UWU). Tens of thousands of his members have had to fight tooth and nail to hold wage thieves to account and to reclaim money stolen from them.
He told On the Job that whilst state legislation in Queensland and Victoria offers the hope of some protection from wage theft, workers elsewhere remain at the mercy of bad employers.
“In the rest of Australia, we are where we were yesterday, last week and last year, where wage theft is fundamentally a business system of maintaining profits.
“It’s not an aberration, it’s a systemic operational tool for major employers, whether it be in horticulture, hospitality, security, cleaning or manufacturing.”
Mr Kennedy believes the state laws should provide workers with a scheme that allows them to pursue wage thieves quickly, at a low cost and effectively. However, he remains skeptical that it will be the silver bullet that will end the wage theft crisis.
“To be quite blunt, the proof will be in the pudding. This is really just an exercise in trying to keep pressure on employers,” Mr Kennedy said.
“The reality is, it will not change wage theft for many, many people because they just don’t know about the remedy [the legislation and the process]. Access to a legal remedy is fraught for people who are subject to wage theft at the best of times.”
For chef and anti-wage theft campaigner with her union Hospo Voice, Julien Gibson, the wage theft business model is as prevalent as ever, despite recent moves in various parliaments to counter it.
“Absolutely it is. We’re seeing wage theft re-imagined with new things like JobKeeper. I’ve heard stories where workers have been told to go halves in the money, so that the employer keeps half the payment, people being told to work overtime on JobKeeper when they shouldn’t have to.”
Ms Gibson has experienced the wage theft business model and she said it leaves deep personal scars.
“You get gaslit in the sense that you’re told that that’s the industry, that if you’ve got a problem with it then you should just change industries and that you’re easily replaceable.”
The rampant exploitation of workers is exacerbated by their insecure work status, something Julien Gibson experienced firsthand.
“For me, I broke my hand, which is the worst sort of predicament to be in as a chef. I had no ability to look after myself, and the Centrelink payments that were supposed to come through took six months,” explained Ms Gibson.
“So, if I didn’t have a safety net, there would be no way in which I would be able to pay rent and feed myself. That fear of challenging employers and your job being threatened, compels people to put up with these jobs that are just not good for their mental health, because no one likes to be treated like a slave.”
Tim Kennedy knows from the experience of his members that the real-life consequences for victims of wage theft are profound.Wage theft can be the "difference between having secure housing, and having enough food for the week, or being able to pay the bills for heating" @UnitedWorkersOz Click To Tweet
“It’s the difference between having secure housing, and having enough food for the week, or being able to pay the bills for heating. The practical reality for people is that they are living in cars, they can’t get enough food, they’re couch surfing, or they just go without eating,” he said.
The UWU National Secretary believes that workers having oversight of what their employers are doing with their books through their unions is the strongest deterrent in the fight against wage thieves.
“For many years it was the norm that workers had confidence that those minimum terms or conditions set by awards would be checked by union organisers and delegates, who would make those checks regularly, and that created a normative cultural understanding about what’s legitimate behaviour and what’s not.
“Big-listed companies have now incorporated wage theft into their business model because those norms have broken down. This is an issue about workers being educated about what their rights are, and to collectively organise.”
Julien Gibson is encouraged by the fired up young workers she sees who have taken it upon themselves to fight the wage thieves.
“I’m 35, and I’ve been in the industry for 16 years. I am quite proud to see the younger generations are just not putting up with the same bullshit that I did.
“They’re clearly challenging these underpayments we see quite often and it’s really exciting to see that they’re willing to stand up for themselves. I think it’s also because they really feel like they’ve got nothing to lose.
“I think young people are really getting over it. So they just have to fight back.”