One of the nation’s largest employer groups has demanded a crackdown on businesses that rip off workers.

In its pre-budget submission, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry calls on the federal government to beef up the Fair Work Ombudsman to pursue employers who underpay staff, saying the problem remains “widespread”.

“There is an increasing awareness of and concern within the Australian community about non-compliance with workplace laws, and an expectation that there is a ‘tough cop on the beat’ in this space,” the submission says.

“Notwithstanding that the FWO represents world’s best practice in enforcement, there is clear and increasing community concern that underpayments are too frequent and widespread.”

The submission calls on the Federal Government to provide extra funding to the Ombudsman to pay for 50 extra workplace inspectors, enabling it to “respond more proactively and strategically to the breadth of this serious problem” and target non-compliance in particular industries.

“More inspectors will also simply put more boots on the ground, more employees will be prompted to check and raise concerns, and more employers will be prompted to check they are getting it right.”

It comes after the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age exposed staff underpayment across the economy – including in celebrity chef Neil Perry’s restaurant business, at Heston Blumenthal’s Australian resturant and the 7 Eleven convenience store chain.

ACCI chief executive James Pearson said law-abiding businesses supported action being taken against rogue operators.

“Everyone should respect and obey the law and, when some people don’t – deliberately or accidentally – then obviously that’s unfair for those that do,” he said.

The ACCI submission also called for a pilot program to hire FWO inspectors fluent in key languages other than English, to ensure migrant workers are “better protected from underpayments, and more confident to query pay and conditions”.

“One of the things that’s been revealed in recent times is that, unfortunately, some of the underpayment and other practices have been occurring in migrant communities or workplaces where the first language for a lot of the workers is not English,” Mr Pearson said.

“Making it easier to communicate with people, both employers and employees, in those workplaces – and making it easier for them to report what’s going on – can only be a good thing.”

He said Australia’s workplace laws were complicated at that while ACCI “would like to see them made more user friendly”, a boost to the Ombudsman would help ensure that employers “understand what their obligations are and discharge them properly”.

The ACCI submission also calls to the building industry regulator, the Australian Building and Construction Commission, to be retained.

Labor has vowed to abolish the commission if it wins government in May.

Mr Pearson said a “strong watchdog” was needed in a sector that had seen “too much thuggery and lawlessness over far too long a time”.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions dismissed the ACCI submission, saying an extra 50 inspectors would not be sufficient to police the nation’s 12 million workplaces “in an environment where wage theft has become a business model for many unscrupulous business owners”.

“We need to ensure working people have access to their representatives and empower those representatives to ensure people are being paid correctly, instead of placing the entire burden for this serious problem on the state’s limited resources,” an ACTU spokesman said.

“It should also be noted that the FWO diverted their resources from wage theft in order to pursue working people over their attendance at a political protest last year.

“We must ensure that the independent umpire has the power to deliver swift, low-cost access to justice, conducted in plain language, so people who’ve had their wages stolen can get their money back.”

Extracted from Canberra Times