The final report from the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce says that as many as half of all temporary migrant workers may be being underpaid in their employment.
The startling statistic was revealed by taskforce chair Professor Allan Fels and deputy chair David Cousins in their report, which makes 22 recommendations to tackle the scourge of wage theft among thousands of migrant workers and foreign students, who are considered vulnerable employees, because they fear losing their visas.
Government gives ‘in-principle’ support
The federal government, which set up the special taskforce, has given in-principle support for all of the recommendations, including that criminal penalties be imposed on serious offenders.
While employer organisations continue to argue that wage theft is nothing more than ‘innocent’ accounting mistakes made by overwhelmed bosses who are ‘confused’ about Modern Awards, the evidence suggests otherwise.
“Our experience is that wage theft is deliberate, calculated and designed to steal money that is rightly owed to workers,” Miles Heffernan, Litigation Director from WAGETHEFT.net.au, said.
“How is it that employers can comply with so many other regulations like those imposed by food authorities or transport safety authorities, but for some reason, they can’t work out how much they need to pay their workers – excuse the expression – but it’s bullshit.”
Criminal sanctions only for the worst cases
In response to concerns that small businesses who make ‘honest’ mistakes will be hauled before the courts, the report proposes that wage theft would have to be ‘‘clear, deliberate and systemic” to attract criminal charges.
The report notes that current penalties for wage theft are now much lighter than for comparable forms of fraud under corporate and competition law, despite further arguments from business groups that suggest current penalties are adequate.
“If current penalties were adequate and were doing their job, we wouldn’t be seeing wage theft rife in so many industries like hospitality, fast food, retail and health and beauty,” Mr Heffernan said.
“The business lobby needs to have a reality check – if someone stole money from their company safe the way some businesses steal wages from their employees, they would be hauled before the courts and charged with a criminal offence – and that is exactly what should happen to greedy bosses who steal money from their workers.”
Election result means change unlikely
Although the Victorian and Queensland Labor governments have proposed criminal sanctions for wage theft, the likelihood of national change is now unlikely following the surprise win of the Coalition government, which has shown no apatite for cracking down on wage theft or dodgy employers.
In the end, it will be young, and migrant, and international students who are all vulnerable workers who will pay the price for such government inaction, because they will continue to have their wages stolen by greedy bosses who face little, if any consequences for such outrageous behaviour.