Wage theft is being outlawed in Victoria.
But ask yourself this question – how has it come to this that workers require new legislation to outlaw dodgy bosses stealing their pay?
How have we come to a point where the theft of workers’ pay is so rampant and widespread that it’s become part of the business model for so many employers that they now need to be reined in by new laws to try and halt the practice?
Wage theft has always been illegal, but since the relentless conservative campaign to drive unions from Australian workplaces began over 25 years ago under the Howard/Costello Government, workers have become more vulnerable, and bosses emboldened.
And whilst new laws, like the ones now enforced in Victoria and Queensland are a welcome step, too many workers across Australia are still at the mercy of wage thieves.
Victoria’s new anti-wage theft legislation is offering the states’ workers legislated protections against businesses that steal their pay and a form of redress.
Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas claimed Victoria’s new laws had “real teeth and greater enforceability” than the proposed laws the Morrison Government cynically abandoned earlier this year after their muddle-headed Omnibus Bill of Industrial Relations (IR) reforms bit the dust.
Under the Victorian legislation, companies could be fined as much as $1 million for deliberately underpaying staff. Individual wage thieves are also in the gun if they deliberately withhold wages or underpay staff with fines of up to $200,000 and a maximum jail term of up to 10 years.
The Victorian Treasurer put employers on notice that businesses still working off the books, underpaying workers and shortchanging their staff, were in the gun.
“If they’re paying people in a way that undermines award entitlements then they’ll be breaching the wage theft laws,” Pallas said.
“Every business needs to recognise they’re on notice today.”
Grace Dowling is a young Victorian who works in pubs, and an organiser and activist with Hospo Voice, the union that has been on the front line of the war on wage theft.
Dowling spoke to “On the Job” after the new Victorian laws came into effect. Whilst she welcomes any legislation that makes wage theft a more treacherous undertaking for bosses, she is adamant that its workers and their Unions that offer the greatest protection.
“One thing we’ve learned in the campaign [against wage theft] is that legislation is not going to be the be-all and end-all of compliance,” Dowling said.
“Relying on government legislation to fortify workers’ rights is not sustainable and holistic. Union oversight is the thing that makes sense, and also workers banding together and joining their union, making sure they have real fortification on the ground, is always going to be the strongest weapon against wage theft.”
A newly appointed body, the Wage Inspectorate Victoria, will oversee the recommendation of any criminal charges, and its inaugural commissioner Robert Hortle said he won’t hesitate to exercise the criminal sanctions in the new laws.
“Employers who act with honesty and make inadvertent mistakes need not fear these laws, it’s about deliberate and dishonest withholding of employee entitlements,” Hortle said.
“We have the power to request documents, compel attendance at interviews and search and seizure powers.”
Similar provisions in Queensland law offer some protection for workers, but neither legislative initiatives have the capacity to do what needs to be done to really put an end to wage theft – restoring full access to all workplaces for unions to have oversight of employees pay and conditions.
Of course, there’s little chance of that occurring under the Morrison Government, which has spent the entirety of their eight years in power obsessed with further undermining the capacity of unions to represent the interest of workers and protect them from predatory employers.
From its despised “Ensuring Integrity” legislation through to its latest epic fail, the IR Omnibus Bill, Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg have done everything in their power to further undermine workers’ rights and deny them the protection on offer from their unions.
It’s this sort of ideological obsession with destroying unions that has created a culture of permissiveness around wage theft. Workers were there to be had, and this government has indicated at every turn that it wasn’t interested in protecting them.
Through their behaviour, Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg gave the green light to would-be wage thieves.
And even when they had to chance to pass the most anemic of laws to counter the practice, it was ditched in a hissy fit as payback to unions for successfully scuttling their Omnibus Bill.
So much for looking after the heroes of the pandemic.
The bottom line is, workers are better when they’re given the power to look after their own interests in the workplace.
Restoring union rights in workplaces is the silver bullet that will stop wage theft in its tracks.