Queensland has the best wage theft laws in the country, according to experts.
The laws came into effect in September 2020 and make wage theft a crime in the state.
They also make it easier for workers to recover stolen wages through a new process in the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission (QIRC).
“It’s extremely streamlined and an exceptional way to recover wages for workers,” industrial advocate Miles Heffernan said.
Wage theft endemic in Queensland
In 2018, a parliamentary inquiry found wage theft endemic in Queensland.
It affects 437,000 (almost one in four) workers in the state costing the economy a staggering $2.5 billion every year.
Workers are short-changed $1.22 billion in wages and $1.12 billion in unpaid superannuation.
Rather than draft a new law, the state Labor government instead made significant amendments to two existing pieces of legislation.
Firstly, it amended the Criminal Code making wage theft a form of stealing, and in some cases fraud, with a maximum penalty of 10 years jail.
Secondly, it amended the Industrial Relations Act to enable the QIRC and the state Industrial Magistrate to determine wage theft matters.
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Wage theft a criminal offence
Although wage theft is now a crime, Mr Heffernan expects charges will only happen in serious cases, involving deliberate or reckless underpayments.
“If a boss is into it up to his neck, and he or she knows she is being a crook, then there’s every chance the police will charge him or her, as well as prosecuting the company,” he said.
In fact, since the new laws came into effect, Mr Heffernan tried to made a wage theft complaint to police.
“We had a rip snorter of a wage theft claim, so we marched our client down to the local cop shop closest to their worksite,” he said.
“That was nine months ago, and we’ve got nowhere.
“So while the law is good in theory, the coppers are obviously nervous because they haven’t run these cases before.”
Civil claims in the QIRC
Mr Heffernan said the genius of the new laws involve changes to the Industrial Relations Act which make it much easier for workers to file wage recovery claims.
“Previously, a worker had to file a claim in the Federal Court, or Federal Circuit Court, which came at a huge cost,” he said.
“Now, Queenslanders can file a claim in the QIRC, where a Commissioner will facilitate a conciliation session to see if the matter can be settled.”
If the matter fails to resolve at conciliation, workers can then take their claim to the Industrial Magistrates Court.
The Industrial Magistrate will consider the evidence and can order bosses back pay what they owe.
“So now, highly experienced Magistrates, who understand wage theft, who understand Fair Work laws and state laws, are running these matters,” Mr Heffernan said.
“What it means is that from the most senior Magistrate down, they are taking this seriously.”
Queensland has best wage theft laws in the country
Mr Heffernan also noted that the Industrial Magistrate can also impose penalties on employers, which can be awarded to workers.
“There is no doubt, Queensland has the rolled gold, exceptional way to recover underpayments,” he said.
“The ability to impose penalties means workers don’t just get their money back, like a small claims, but it actually penalises bad bosses for stealing from employees.”
Meanwhile, Mr Heffernan wants to see other states adopt the Queensland model.
“These laws work. This is the sort of thing the Attorney-General should take to the next COAG meeting to roll out nationally. It’s fair for the good bosses but it also holds bad bosses to account,” he said.
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