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Issue #1921      June 29, 2020

OP-ED: Wage theft off the menu in Victoria

Thanks to the efforts of unionists in Victoria wage theft is now a crime. On Tuesday 16th June legislation passed the upper house with crossbench support. Effective from 1st July 2021, business owners who are found intentionally withholding payment from their employees will face fines of $991,320 per offence and individuals will face fines of $198,264 per offence. A maximum jail sentence of ten years may also be applied.

These fines are large and designed to place accountability at the level of company managers – no more blame shifting to an accountant or payroll officer, or what have you. These laws pertain to current and future wage theft but not wage theft in the past.

These laws are welcome. I work in hospitality, an industry in which wage theft has been the norm. This legislation will do much to force the hands of sloppy and unscrupulous businesses to straighten up. As a worker you can make this happen by joining your union. Anecdotes of $5 per hour pay rises are trickling in from around the industry as bosses suddenly find the cash to pay award wages.

In the bourgeois press these laws have been ridiculed and lampooned as “dead on arrival.” There are a couple of reasons for this: The bourgeois press pushes the class interests of employers; News Corp doesn’t like the Victorian Premier; and the federal government is making noises about its own wage theft laws.

In February the office of Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations released a discussion paper setting out the scope of wage theft legislation federally which was said to “be introduced in the coming weeks,” a timeline presumably extended by COVID-19 in Australia.

Wage-theft legislation from the federal government will not be as rigorous as the Victorian legislation. For example, the Victorian law gives the Wage Inspectorate the option to apply for and execute search warrants among other powers. This goes beyond the scope of the existing Wage Inspectorate Victoria and the Fair Work Ombudsman. In contrast the federal government proposes giving the Fair Work Ombudsman “the necessary tools to ensure compliance with the Act.” It is hard to conceive of the current government coming up with a set of wage-theft laws which prevent on-going wage theft. The paper uses equivocating language when discussing wage theft and makes repeated references to reducing costs in dispute resolution.

Perhaps the most egregious issue with the paper is it seeks legislation to “criminalise the most serious forms of deliberate worker exploitation and wage underpayments”. The Victorian legislation, however, criminalises all future wage-theft that is deemed deliberate.

A possible stumbling block in the drafting of the Victoria legislation is references to “dishonest” conduct. This provides a way for “honest” theft of employees’ wages and will be used as a loophole by employers because they find the Award system too hard to understand.

Hundreds of street stalls, thousands of phone calls and door knocking by dozens of unions and thousands of union activists produced this outcome. Congratulations to the organised Victorian workers. We will be watching the Federal legislation closely.

Next article – The CPRF is for a constitution of justice and rule by the people

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