31 March 2022


SUBJECTS: Wage theft; wage theft inquiry.   

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW, HOST: Wage theft in Australia is systemic, sustained, and shameful and workers are often too scared to speak out in fear of repercussions.

That’s according to a scathing Senate inquiry report, which is calling for new laws to protect employees.

A Senate committee — set up in 2019 to investigate the unlawful underpayment of employees — has made 19 recommendations to stop the practice.  

One key recommendation is for the federal government to change the Fair Work Act to outlaw such wage theft. 

Senator Jess Walsh is an ALP member on that wage theft Committee.

Senator, the report found that wage theft is systemic. Can you talk us through some examples of wage theft that the inquiry uncovered?

JESS WALSH, LABOR SENATOR FOR VICTORIA: We heard some really shocking evidence from workers who had their wages stolen. 

One story that really stuck with me was Jules, a chef in the hospitality sector. And Jules was made to work 12-hour unpaid trial shifts. And then when she got the job, she got unpaid overtime, no breaks, no penalty rates. And she was never paid the correct amount of superannuation.

And basically, she told the committee that whenever she asked for her entitlements, whenever she spoke up, the response from her employer was, ‘Well, everyone is replaceable.’

So, what we heard is that workers are being forced to choose between accepting below legal wages or threatened with not having any income at all.

BARTHOLOMEW: And therefore, perhaps too scared to speak up. We’ve of course seen the stories around different companies. Be it Qantas, NAB, CBA, Coles, Woolworths and even the ABC involved in some of this from time to time.

Do you think the current penalties for companies found guilty of wage theft are adequate?

WALSH: Well, clearly, the penalties are completely inadequate today. Because we did find that wage theft is absolutely systemic. And particularly systemic in industries where workers are already insecure. Industries like hospitality, agriculture, retail. 

The penalties are not enough, they allow too many employers to get away with it. And at the moment, at the federal level, there are just no criminal penalties for companies that steal wages from workers. At the same time, if a worker went and stole from the till they could be facing jail time. So, we did make the recommendation that wage theft be made a crime at the federal level.

BARTHOLOMEW: What kind of difference might that make? I think the business communities defence has been that this isn’t deliberate theft sometimes, it’s just that some of these awards system and the industrial relations system is just so hard to negotiate. What do you make of that defence?

WALSH: I think it’s a pretty poor defence. We did find that wage theft is systemic and that in some industries it is in fact a business model. So, what outlawing wage theft would do is send a really clear message to business that this will not be tolerated. You will be held to account if you steal from your workers.

And some states have already made wage theft a crime. The Victorian Government introduced wage theft laws which came into effect last year, and we’re already hearing that this is having a pretty good deterrent effect. 

And workers want to see their federal government get up and stand up for them. And making wage theft a crime would really give them the courage to stand up and say, ‘You can’t do this. It’s illegal.’ It would be clear for everyone. For workers and employers.

BARTHOLOMEW: I note that Government Senators on the committee did table a dissenting report. They suggest that your report insufficiently considers the positive impact of the measures the Government has introduced to support the rights of employees on this front and proposes a range of recommendations which are insufficiently supported by the evidence. 

WALSH: I think that’s what we would expect from Senators who are a part of the Morrison Government. The Morrison Government has done absolutely nothing on this issue over the last decade.

They don’t have a plan to get wages moving today. And you can’t have a real plan to get wages moving if you don’t have a plan to tackle wage theft. This is a systemic problem. People have been speaking out about it for years, and the Morrison Government committed to making wage theft a crime and then failed to do that. And that says all you need to know about this Government’s commitment to working people.