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Dear Comrade: Are private businesses exempt from wage laws?

Stockphoto of a young mechanic

Dear Comrade is Megaphone's advice column, where union members and officials respond to your questions about work, activism, and the world. Submit your questions here.

Dear Comrade

I have been working in an automotive repair shop for a few weeks, and I’m starting to get suspicious that not everything is above board.  

A few weeks ago I was rostered on to work a Sunday, and after my shift I asked my boss about penalty rates. He said that just this once, he’d pay me penalty rates for the shift, but he didn’t have to because he owns the repair shop privately, and also, he was never going to give me a Sunday shift again. I asked a more senior co-worker and he told me that was right. 

The boss also doesn’t give me payslips. He says he doesn’t like them.  

Am I being unreasonable? I’m glad to have the job and I don’t want to quit.  

Suspicious 


Dear Suspicious. 

Um... I’m sorry, but does your boss think there is something particularly unique about his repair shop being a private business? Does he think all his competitors are state-run? 

Your boss’ Lord-of-the-manor attitude is the natural consequence of successive Liberal governments valorising small business libertarianism, and characterising all protections for workers as incursions on business liberty.  

No, he is not exempt from minimum wage legislation or penalty-rates because his business is privately owned.  

And yes, he still has to provide payslips even if he “doesn’t like them” (that’s a giant red flag, and not the kind that flies proudly from Trades Hall).   

And here’s the kicker. By saying he would stop rostering you for Sunday shifts when you asked about penalty rates, he has committed “adverse action” - discriminating against you because you exercised a workplace right. See if you can get this admission in writing! 

It sounds like your co-workers aren’t exactly schooled up on their workplace rights, and that’s where you need to start. Explain to them that the boss has been stealing their wages – perhaps for years – and that collectively, you can pull him into line. Sign them up to your union, and together, approach the boss armed with your knowledge of the law. Make sure you document your interaction! 

Workers in union can exercise power. If your boss continues to demonstrate misplaced confidence in his own legal and industrial expertise, a visit from your union organiser will clear up those misconceptions.   

-Oanh Tran, Principal Solicitor at the Young Workers Centre  

*Megaphone Journal sometimes edits details of a Dear Comrade letter to preserve the anonymity of our letter writers. But all stories are based on genuine queries. 

Got a question for a comrade?

A young mechanic asks the Young Workers Centre about penalty rates entitlements, and his boss' claim that private business is exempt. Spoiler, wage theft ahead.

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