It was unthinkable, even just a few years ago, that a government in Australia would introduce laws to make the deliberate underpayment of wages a crime.

Now recalcitrant employers face the risk of going to jail for up to 10 years under proposed changes by the Andrews government.

It should send a stern message to employers that do the wrong thing; change or face the consequences.

Whether the stick is too big or whether the criminal law should be this heavily introduced into workplace relations are legitimate questions.

But business, large and small, have only themselves to blame.

So endemic has the flouting of legal minimum wages and conditions become that a far stronger response was inevitable.

In recent years, wages scandal after wages scandal has been unearthed, with much of this revealed by The Age.

It has ranged from the systemic underpayment of workers at businesses such as 7-Eleven, Caltex and Domino’s to small cafes and a farm sector where the practice is rampant.

It has been revealed in wage deals between huge companies such as Coles, McDonald’s and Woolworths and the shop assistants union that left more than 250,000 workers underpaid.

Those deals were even signed off by the Fair Work Commission, making the systemic flouting of minimum wages, in those cases, lawful.

It appears to be a combination of factors that have brought this crisis to the fore.

The union movement is diminished, at its weakest state for 100 years, leaving big gaps in the policing of workplace standards.

Many underpaid workers have never seen a union organiser.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has limited powers as a workplace watchdog and its light touch approach encourages education much more than enforcement. It has failed to deal with this issue.

Fierce competition in industries such as hospitality, the power of big players in sectors such as supermarkets and the resulting pressure on supply chains is another.

As is the long economic fall-out from the global financial crisis.

Australia’s visa system also allows the systemic abuse of a huge pool of temporary migrant workers, with vast power imbalances between workers and employers.

In recent weeks, I’ve met dozens of migrant workers who often endure horrific workplace and living conditions and massive underpayment. Speaking up, and being forced out of Australia is a real risk.

But at the heart of this crisis there is also greed, a sense from many employers that the laws are a joke, the penalties are weak and can be broken with impunity.

That cannot continue.

Extracted from WAtoday