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Wage Theft Bill – fairness matters

Jun 16, 2020 | Parliament

Mr BARTON (Eastern Metropolitan) (17:51): I rise today to speak on the Wage Theft Bill 2020. Fairness is the core of my reason for being here. My seat in this place began in the pursuit of fairness.

This bill comes down to some pretty basic principles of corporate behaviour and fair conduct. Surely after what we have seen of some corporate behaviour here in Australia so far this year we cannot question the fundamental need for fairness here.

This legislation sends a pretty clear message that people deserve to be paid for the work they perform. If the award covers conditions that say they are entitled to overtime, sick pay, holiday pay, superannuation and penalty rates, businesses cannot deliberately not pay what they are legally required to do without serious consequences.

Wage Theft Bill passes Victorian Parliament

I voted in favour of the Wage Theft Bill which introduces jail time and substantial fines for employers who withhold payment or entitlements to their staff. …

It is disturbing that employers have purposely gone out of their way to exploit workers by paying below award, below the minimum wage. We have heard, and I am sure we will continue to hear over this day, examples that support this legislation. We will hear of hospitality and retail giants who have failed to pay their staff, leaving workers out of pocket. Recent estimates are that the Woolworths repayments to 5700 staff members may reach up to $400 million. It is not just big companies; it is happening in my electorate too with some small businesses where owners work side by side with the people they are stealing from. There have been recent cases in my Eastern Metro Region where hospitality employers have been fined for paying their workers less than $10 an hour for working as much as 80 hours per week.

In 2018 the owner of three childcare centres was fined $85 000 and the judge ordered an injunction restraining her from underpaying childcare workers in the future after she was caught for a second time engaging in wage theft. If caught again underpaying staff, this person will be found in contempt of court and could face jail time. This legislation is sorely needed when judges need to go to the effort of ordering injunctions to send a message to employers to get their payrolls in order.

This bill will put a floor under the workforce that says that a minimum wage, sick pay, holiday pay, legal entitlements for workers are a standard that no-one else should be allowed to fall below. This bill will ensure that workers are paid what they are owed. It compels employers to know the rights of their workers and not take advantage of our most vulnerable citizens, who may not yet know that in this country, and especially in this state, we respect their efforts and they will be paid fairly. The argument that Victoria is not the right jurisdiction for this legislation is simply wrong. Wage theft is happening right here and under our noses, and we must do something about it, not wait for someone to take responsibility, possibly in the distant future—tell that to the 7-Eleven employees.

Wage theft is almost a business model in the hospitality industries, and fines under the Fair Work Act 2009, if you were caught, have not been strong enough for corporate Australia to change its behaviour.

If it is happening in my electorate, you can bet it is happening in yours. This bill will criminalise the deliberate theft of employee entitlements. It is not okay to plead ignorance, pay it back and take a slap on the hand. We do not see many cases of overpayment of employee entitlements, and most businesses are fairly competent in managing their income side of the books. That wage theft happens at all means we need to call it out. If jail time and harder financial penalties are needed as an incentive for companies to figure this out, then so be it.

This is not about duplicating the work of the Fair Work ombudsman; it is about supporting that office. By introducing the concept of dishonesty into the Fair Work laws we then require employers to do everything in their power to make sure that their workers are paid correctly. How can anyone suggest that now is not the time or that businesses need an amnesty on stealing and cheating their workers in order to get back on their feet after the bushfires and COVID-19 shutdowns? That passes nobody’s pub test. We are not asking them to do anything more than meet the pay standard they are already legally required to meet. Honest businesses will not have to worry about this piece of legislation and they will not have to compete with those who are knowingly ripping off their workers. Now is exactly the right time to ensure that workers are getting paid what they are entitled to. Those who are most likely to be victims of wage theft are already the lowest paid workers. They are the ones who have suffered most through the lockdowns, losing jobs and lining up for Centrelink payments. They are workers who cannot afford to miss out on a fair day’s pay for their work, and for some of these workers getting paid correctly is the difference between paying the rent and putting food on the table.

I hope over the coming years that this type of legislation expands to include fairness and dignity for workers where companies use cute classifications, such as ‘contractor partner’, to avoid their responsibilities. Last week the Californian regulator in the United States decided that people who drive for rideshare operators are employees and are eligible for employee entitlements. These companies prey on vulnerable people and game the system for profit at the expense of people who work for them. It is refreshing to see regulators calling them out at last. If they were contractors or even partners, they would not be taking below the minimum wage. They would be invoicing for the hours and the efforts provided.

Here in Victoria we have seen an explosion of driver numbers in the commercial passenger vehicle sector since deregulation in 2017 and now have over our 110 000 drivers on the streets competing for work. Since the airport closed, since the grand prix was cancelled and since Victoria’s sporting and corporate events programs shut down there has been no work for these 110 000 drivers. Most of these drivers were already making below the minimum wage prior to the pandemic. They have no super to draw on, no sick leave, no holidays owing, no backup from their partners. So in summary, I think it is fair that we hold businesses accountable who deliberately do the wrong thing, and we demand honesty, integrity and a fair go when you employ people. I commend this bill to the house.

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