How employers get away with stealing wages

Published: 15/06/2023
Category: Industrial Relations
Published: 15/06/2023
Category: Industrial Relations

It can be easy to think you only need to worry about wage theft while working certain jobs or that it only affects workers who receive cash in hand while working at a café or offered soft drink instead of paid breaks.  

But these aren’t the only types of jobs where wage theft happens. With two-thirds of workers in Australia having experienced wage theft, chances are it could be happening in your industry too. 

Midwife Pamela works at a major hospital where wage theft is rife. 

“It’s a hard job being a midwife. And it’s even harder when you’ve got to chase your pay at the end of the day to get what you’re owed,” she says.  

“We’re supposed to log into a portal on the network [to resolve wage issues] but when we do, we hear back in a few days that the problem is resolved yet we’re not paid. Every pay, every staff member, we’re short paid and the company just doesn’t care.”

Little standing in the way of businesses engaging in wage theft

Why it’s essential to be a union member when dealing with wage theft
  • Your union can help you recover stolen wages up to six years later.

  • Check with your union to make sure you’re on the right pay grade from the start.

  • Your union can review your employment contract to ensure everything’s up to scratch.

Adrian has been working in a bank for over a decade, helping people protect themselves against online scams.  

But from the start they’ve been on an individual contract and employed under a subsidiary that meant poorer wages and conditions. 

“They ended up ripping me off thousands of dollars in wage theft,” Adrian said.  

“I have been able to get the money back but only because the Finance Sector Union took the bank to task.”  

Even when it’s clear that your employer has stolen your wages, the burden is on you to recover the stolen pay.

“We have a staff member who was placed on the lowest hourly rate when she started, which is a routine thing that this company does. It took her two years. Two years to change to the right rate of pay,” Pamela says. 

“She wasn’t given backpay. She had to go through Fair Work. Six months later she finally got her $36,000 in backpay.” 

Like Adrian, Steve works in finance and counted on the backing of his union so he could recover more than $23,000 in stolen wages. 

“The problem with wage theft is that the business models do not discourage it,” he says. 

“If you’re a teller and you steal from the till, you will get prosecuted. But if your employer steals from you, then unless you have a union to back you and push it, nothing will happen.”

Workers can’t keep enduring stolen wages

“In the finance industry, it’s all about ‘we’ve got to cut some more costs’, lumping more and more on people until they break,” Steve says. 

And yet it’s far from only finance. Pamela knows her pay will fall short but it’s hard for her to guess how much will be stolen each pay cycle and what impact it will have.  

“When you’re trying to pay the mortgage, make the bills, buy the extra pressie for your kids. When you’re expecting overtime money and it doesn’t turn up, it’s hard and it’s stressful,” she says.  

So many big companies have been able to get away with this kind of behaviour due to loopholes in our legal system.  

Adrian says those loopholes need to be well and truly closed: “It’s not just about getting it right for the workplace. It’s getting it right for all of Australia.” 

It has been despite the slow and costly court system that unions have managed to recover millions in stolen wages for members.  

New laws must make wage recovery quick, easy and low cost. Employers shouldn’t be able to get away with wage theft while workers are held back from enforcing their rights.

Close the loopholes for wage theft

How employers get away with stealing wages

How employers get away with stealing wages