From today, employers in Victoria who deliberately underpay wages or other entitlements like superannuation could face substantial fines or up to 10 years’ jail. This is a huge, worker-led victory. Union members campaigned together to make wage theft a crime to bring justice and change to exploited workers.
Until now, an employee stealing from the till was a criminal matter, but an employer stealing thousands from their employees was merely an administrative error. The worker could be charged by police for theft and could receive a criminal record - but the boss would simply be asked to repay what they stole.
The objective of this legislation is to act as a real deterrent to wage theft. In industries such as hospitality, wage theft is so commonplace that honest employers are at a genuine competitive disadvantage. The Victorian union movement will be pushing for prosecutions through the newly-created Wage Inspectorate Victoria, who will have the power to investigate and prosecute cases of wage theft. Inspectors will be able to enter workplaces of the business owner to inspect and seize documents.
The Victorian Government is to be congratulated on delivering these wage theft laws and for committing to a fast-track process for recovery of stolen wages up to $50,000 through the Magistrates court. This vital reform will enable workers to reclaim monies owed to them in a quick and cheap fashion. In future years we will look upon the achievement of Australia’s first wage theft laws as a milestone achievement in workers’ campaigns for wage justice.
Quotes attributable to Victorian Trades Hall Council Secretary Luke Hilakari:
“If your business "can’t afford” to pay workers what they earned, then you cannot afford to be in business.
“Previously other statutory workplace authorities have been gun-shy about actually using their powers, preferring to issue warnings. The result is what we have today; cases of wage theft in every shopping strip.
“When workers are deprived of wages they have fairly earned, it means it’s harder to pay the rent and bills. Endemic wage theft in some industries puts downwards pressure on the wages on everybody working in Australia. Australian workers’ share in our national wealth has been steadily decreasing for decades, increasing social and economic inequality.
“If you’re found to have taken money from the pockets of your employees, you are a thief. And if you’re worried about facing jail time or huge fines for that - good.
“Unions will be bringing cases of theft before the Wage Inspectorate Victoria and we’ll be pushing for prosecutions.”
Anchalee Suwan, migrant worker/student:
I was a qualified nurse and massage therapist when I moved to Australia from Thailand to study English. I worked so many jobs, underpaid, insecure work. I worked in a restaurant in Middle Park, I was paid $50 a shift to be a kitchen hand from 5pm until 11pm. But the funny thing is, everyone who worked there was very stressed and had sore shoulder at the end of the night, so they would each pay me $10 for a neck massage. That helped me pay for my rent! I also worked at some Thai massage businesses, if they weren’t busy I wouldn’t be paid at all. I worked as a singer at night, I’d get paid $80 to perform from 10pm until 4am. Then often up the next morning early to do cleaning job, or community care job, then off to school. I never got any super from working in massage, cleaning, kitchen work, singing – nobody paid.
Erica Ransley, 28 years old. Social work student, former café manager
I started working at a café, it ran for 2-3 months and in that time we were paid about half our wages for the first two weeks and then after that we were not paid at all. I wasn’t paid any super. When we approached Fair Work afterwards, they basically said there was nothing we could do. The business had shut down, the boss had gone into hiding. To get by, I ended up borrowing a lot of money from friends and family. I had a huge amount of stress because I was a supervisor there and the other staff thought it was my fault. People were approaching me during work to have a go. I already deal with depression and anxiety so that had a huge impact generally, I ended up leaving after I had an altercation with a parent while I was at work because of how upsetting it was.
These wage theft laws are so important. We already know this kind of work is incredibly unstable and hard to survive on so on top of that, to be at risk of having your wages stolen and to have no recourse makes for a very unstable situation. I hope these laws will provide young people in particular and people in casual work with security and a bit of protection, and a way to seek justice when employers who have a lot of power over them have done the wrong thing.