THE parliamentary wage theft inquiry is starting to shine a light on some pretty dark corners of Queensland’s economy.
It’s a provocative name for an inquiry because most of what happens isn’t theft but ignorance or oversight. And, of course, it was set up for political reasons and as a platform for the union movement to prosecute its case, but that doesn’t mean it can’t do some good.
Lo and behold it appears to be doing just that. Finally the cynicism of politics has merged seamlessly with a crying need.
What it has shown through submissions and the first day of hearings is that wage theft is widespread and not much is being done about it. Why? Well mostly because of a lack of funding for regulators but also because it affects mostly the vulnerable – immigrants, the young, poorly educated and visa workers – who don’t have a voice or are too intimidated to do anything.
The inquiry is yet to show that wage theft is a business model in certain industries, as the unions claim, but there is no doubt industries like hospitality, including restaurants and cafes, have a serious problem.
Businesses who are doing the right thing are being forced to compete with those who aren’t and that should be enough for the industry to accept it has to clean up its act.
The tourism sector in Queensland is already in desperate need of skilled staff like chefs. The last thing it needs is a reputation as dodgy employers because no one will want to work there and that’s exactly what is going to happen if operators continue to underpay or refuse to pay superannuation and other entitlements.
The tourism sector has accepted there is an issue among its ranks and wants tougher regulation and penalties.
That acceptance alone should mean the Palaszczuk Government will have to do something significant in the area.
It’s not as if this has been one of those sleeper issues that governments have been unaware of.
A Senate committee in 2017 reported that employers failed to pay an aggregate amount of $5.6 billion in superannuation guarantee contributions in 2013-14. It impacted 2.76 million employees by an average $2000 in a single year. If you compound the interest on that, it would be significantly more.
Earlier this year, the Fair Work Ombudsman surveyed various parts of the nation and in Fortitude Valley they found 60 per cent of the businesses surveyed were non-compliant.
The Queensland Nurses Union has also recovered about $9 million in underpayments for its members in recent years and there has been the scandalous cases at franchises like 7-Eleven, Caltex, Dominoes, Pizza Hut and Red Rooster.
Brisbane-based company Macquarie Technology Group and its owner have also been hit with a record $125,000 in penalties for failing to pay a worker who had been unfairly dismissed.
An issue that doesn’t get much exposure is that the FWO is limited in what it can do. It can’t police the more than 2.2 million businesses in Australia. Prosecuting every case would not be viable.
Evidence to the wage theft inquiry was that it has become too easy for employers not to pay correct wages. For a start, a lot of workers just don’t know they are being underpaid and in many cases it’s just a mistake.
But if they try to take action it can cost them thousands of dollars and force them into the Federal Circuit Court which could also take several months.
Because it’s mostly the vulnerable workers who are impacted by this there is a reluctance to take action.
Unions claim that the issue is so prevalent it should become a criminal offence for reckless or serious breaches. They point out that a worker can be jailed for stealing from an employer but the same penalty does not exist when the roles are reversed.
But criminalising it may be going too far.
The Queensland Law Society’s Ken Stevenson told the inquiry that from a practical point of view “throwing a few dodgy employers in jail” was not likely to solve the issue because most of it is unintended.
More court resources are needed. More education of both workers and employers is also an obvious need and would go much further than criminalising it.
In the end though, the Government has to make wage theft a priority and business needs to get on board.
Extracted from the Courier Mail