Qld govt, unions back recommendation to jail employers for wage theft

Government, unions back in-principle recommendation to jail dodgy employers who deliberately or recklessly underpay workers.

Employers found to be deliberately or recklessly engaging in wage theft could find themselves in jail, after the Palaszczuk Government accepted in-principle making wage theft a criminal offence following a Parliamentary Inquiry.

The recommendation was one of 17 contained in the State Government’s response to a Parliamentary committee inquiry into wage theft released Friday 15 February.

The report revealed wage theft is costing Queensland workers up to $1.22 billion in lost wages and $1.12 billion in lost superannuation every year.

The committee received 49 submissions from employer organisations, unions, law firms, and community organisations, and heard evidence from 100 individuals at 24 hearings in Brisbane and regional Queensland. 360 workers also responded to an online survey asking for accounts of recent and historical wage theft from the public.

Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace said wage theft took many forms, including the underpayment of wages, unpaid super, unpaid penalty rates, unauthorised deductions from pays, unpaid work trials, the misuse of ABNs and sham contracting.

“In its report, the committee made 17 recommendations aimed at eliminating wage theft and ensuring workers get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, and the government has accepted, or accepted in principle, all of the recommendations.

“Six of the recommendations are within the Queensland Government’s jurisdiction and deal with providing better public information and education, ensuring our procurement policies allow for action to the taken against employers that have underpaid workers and taking action to ensure that wage recovery processes for Queensland workers are simple, quick and low-cost.

The committee also recommended that wage theft in deliberate or reckless cases be criminalised at a state level, a move supported by many stakeholders from both employers and unions who appeared before the Inquiry.

Eleven of the 17 recommendations made in the report are matters for the Federal Government to consider, with Grace urging the Federal Government to take action to address wage theft on a national level.

“The inquiry found that wage theft is affecting around 437,000, or one-in-five, Queensland workers and costing more than $1 billion every year. That’s $1 billion that’s missing from family budgets and that doesn’t flow to local businesses and the wider economy.

“The inquiry also found the annual loss associated with the underpayment or non-payment of superannuation was estimated at $1.12 billion.”

Building Service Contractors Association of Australia (BSCAA) Queensland president Kim Puxty said the association will be supportive of laws that are designed to stamp out criminal acts perpetrated with intent.

“Our association has long advocated for fairness and compliance in all aspects of the workplace. There can be no justification for the deliberate underpayment of workers in any industry,” Puxty said.

“What the association hopes for is proper consultation by the Queensland government before any criminal offences are created and placed on the statute books. It is one thing to make errors in a complex payroll environment. That happens to every employer including the government itself. It is another thing to deliberately seek to subvert employment laws.

“BSCAA will be supportive of laws that are designed to stamp out criminal acts perpetrated with intent. BSCAA will not support laws that result in the penalising of businesses who make honest errors.”

United Voice Queensland president Sharron Caddie said the union had made a joint submission to the inquiry calling for wage theft to be made a crime.

“United Voice members are too frequently victims of wage theft, feeling the impacts of outdated agreements that are below award, dodgy labour hire operators, sham contracting and missing out on super and entitlements,” Caddie said.

“We welcome the state government’s commitment today to take action on all recommendations made in the Parliamentary Inquiry,” she said.

Queensland Council of Unions general secretary Ros McLennan said the scourge of wage theft affects the entire community: workers, families, law-abiding businesses and the wider economy.

“Criminalisation of wage theft is a real deterrent for those employers and organisations that think ripping off their workers is a business model,” she said.

McLennan said the state jurisdiction had a vital role in stamping out wage theft, pointing to similar crackdowns against dodgy labour hire operators.

“Employer organisations acting in the interests of their own members should also support the state government cracking down on dodgy operators who use wage theft to undercut those employers doing the right thing.”

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