Wage Theft Criminalised in Victoria, Time for States & Commonwealth to Act

19-Jun-2020

Wage theft, the non-payment or under payment of salary and wages, is endemic across all sectors of the Australian economy.

On 17 June, wage theft became a crime in Victoria after the upper house passed Australia’s first legislation criminalising the deliberate underpayment of workers. The new laws involve significantly higher penalties for systematic and blatant exploitation, including fines of up to almost $1 million dollars for businesses and up to 10 years jail for those who benefit from such behaviour. It also establishes the Wage Inspectorate Victoria which has the power to enter premises to obtain information, seize evidence and to apply for and execute search warrants.

Underpayment of workers is not limited to Victoria. It is an Australian problem. Recent news headlines have been rampant with revelations of underpayments at dozens of Australia-wide businesses, including 7-Eleven, McDonald’s and Coles.

Underpayments of public sector employees are typically not given equal attention in the media and public discourse surrounding wage theft as compared large corporate cases, however they are also substantial. The potential scope of underpayments to doctors working in public health services across Australia is difficult to quantify but almost certainly huge.

ASMOF NSW regularly conducts pay audits on behalf of trainee members working for NSW Health and finds errors in almost every audit. In 207 individual pay audits conducted on behalf of doctors in training since 2016, just over $1m has been recovered from NSW Health. Furthermore ASMOF NSW has investigated and exposed state wide errors relating to unpaid meal breaks and Leave Without Pay entries which have resulted in at least $3-4m being returned to members across the state. This is not to mention unpaid overtime, with ASMOF NSW Member Engagement Survey finding that ¾ of trainee members had worked unpaid overtime.

Whilst the general discussion of wage theft revolves around private businesses, governments should be mindful that significant underpayments are currently occurring to their own employees and this must change. Increasing cost pressures on our public hospitals will only worsen this already dangerous situation is left unchecked.

The Commonwealth and NSW Governments need to follow Victoria and introduce new wage theft laws that grant power to statutory bodies to address systematic, ongoing and widespread failure to pay money and provide other employment conditions to workers.

ASMOF recently submitted to a federal wage theft inquiry calling for these changes, you can find it here.