Wage Theft Bill 2020 – Second Reading Debate

You can watch the video here.

 

I rise to speak in support of this very important legislation, the Wage Theft Bill 2020, an important bill that delivers on the Andrews Labor government’s commitment to criminalise wage theft and to establish Wage Inspectorate Victoria with functions and powers to investigate and prosecute the wage theft offences. I am so proud to have the opportunity to speak on another landmark Andrews Labor government bill, a bill that enshrines wage theft as a crime with serious consequences for deliberate and dishonest underpayment of wages and entitlements. We need to introduce this legislation because it is clear the current laws are not strong enough and they do not deter wage theft. It is a significant issue and affects many workers every day of every month of every year. That is why I reject the views of the member for Ripon and the opposition that now is not the time to introduce this legislation. There is always time to introduce legislation that addresses dishonesty and deliberate exploitation of workers. Now is the time more than ever as we see more and more people desperate for work. Now is the time to stamp out exploitation, and we will do that with this bill. I am very, very confident of that.

Importantly I really want to recognise the many, many, many employers who do the right thing every day, paying their staff correctly, respecting their staff, supporting their staff, going above and beyond to look after their staff. We have so many of those employers across Ballarat and across Victoria. This bill is not about them. This is about those who do the opposite to them. I would really like to thank the Attorney-General, whose leadership is shining through once again on this important issue, and the Minister for Industrial Relations for a bill that will deliver fairness for many hardworking Victorians that have been disrespected, have been exploited and have been ripped off. Unlike the member for Mornington, I do believe that this legislation will help fix the problem. He does not seem to get what we are putting in place and why it is important right now.

I would also like to acknowledge the work of the ministerial offices and departments and to thank them for their work in the development of this bill. I would particularly like to thank Zoe, who is in the chamber with us today, for the hours and hours of work that she has put in.

We have just heard from the member for Mornington about complaints that employer groups were not consulted; that is not true, and the record needs to be cleared up. We know, and I know, that high levels of consultation took place with stakeholders, including employer groups, including union representatives and of course including victims of wage theft. I too would like to congratulate the member for Ringwood, who led consultation sessions with wage theft victims and unions on these issues, and also my friend the member for Northcote for the forum she held in Melbourne’s inner north.

I can tell you I was delighted on 26 May 2018 when the Premier announced that a re-elected Andrews Labor government would introduce new wage theft laws to be enforced by an inspectorate. As the candidate for Wendouree at the time, I welcomed this announcement and campaigned on this commitment prior to being elected to this place. Wage theft is an issue that resonated with my community in Ballarat, and several people I spoke to had either experienced it firsthand or had a family member or a friend that had been underpaid or denied award conditions and entitlements or had not been paid super at all. This bill is in step with community attitudes and expectations of a fair day’s work equalling a fair day’s pay. That is what hardworking Victorians deserve.

The bill tackles the issues by creating new wage theft offences, and once again it is that word ‘dishonest’. We are not talking about honest Victorians and we are not talking about honest employers; this is targeted towards dishonesty. Employers who deliberately withhold workers entitlements and employers who falsify entitlement records and deliberately fail to keep employee entitlement records; that is what this bill is about. That is at the heart of this new legislation.

By establishing Wage Inspectorate Victoria as a statutory body to investigate and enforce the offences means that we will address the problem and we will make this a thing of the past in Victoria. Let us be really clear, what are we talking about when we talk about wage theft? We are talking about when companies and individual employers deliberately underpay and deny workers conditions that they are entitled to. Examples of wage theft include, but are not limited to, the underpayment of the legal hourly rate, payment at a lower or incorrect classification, failure to pay shift penalties and other allowances, requiring workers to complete unpaid overtime and not paying superannuation at all. Wage theft occurs when employers deliberately and fraudulently underpay their workforces’ wages. They are literally stealing money from their workers’ pay packets and their pockets. What they are doing is theft, and this legislation is making wage theft a crime like any other form of theft. We believe that theft is theft, and thieving employers will be dealt with as thieves, including being sent to jail for their crimes.

We have seen too many high-profile cases across our state and nation. People have talked about this already: about Woolworths, about 7-Eleven, about Red Rooster, about Caltex, about Pizza Hut and about Domino’s. They have all been named in wage scandals. It has become clear that in some sectors underpayment of workforce wages has become routine. This is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated. Industries with particularly high rates of wage theft are hospitality and agriculture. Nationally it is estimated that one in two hospitality workers are being underpaid, with similar figures being reported in retail, in beauty and in fast-food sectors. The offences cover underpayment of wages as well as allowances, annual leave, long service leave and meal breaks.

I would really like to acknowledge the strong advocacy of Hospo Voice in the fight for workers rights and drawing the community’s attention to the widespread occurrence of wage theft in the hospitality industry in Victoria, and also their union, the United Workers Union. I would also like to congratulate Luke Hilakari and Victoria Trades Hall Council for their campaign to address this injustice and exploitation—and the role that unions have played in the development of this legislation.

It is so important to recognise that migrant visa workers in low-skill industries are disproportionately affected by wage theft. For these workers, there are so many vulnerable workers who are too afraid to speak up; greater protections are needed, and severe criminal punishments need to be introduced.

I have already mentioned that I have spoken to a number of people in Ballarat about wage theft, and the Ballarat trades hall council has played a really important leadership role at the local level in addressing this issue and in the recovery of underpaid wages. One of the most common breaches identified by trades hall in Ballarat was the underpayment of the minimum hourly rate. The Ballarat trades hall secretary shared with me an example of a local fish and chip shop who offered $8 or $9 per hour for employees under the age of 18. The employees are off the books and therefore have no WorkCover protections, despite the danger of working with hot oil. If a staff member questions their pay or conditions, they are simply sacked on the spot and a line of other kids are waiting to take their place.

Secretary Brett Edgington has also identified cash-in-hand or off-the-books schemes where workers are paid in cash at a rate well under the legal minimum hourly rate, even considering junior rates. These schemes are not oversights or unintentional non-compliance. Rather, it is a systematic approach to reduce costs and avoid having to pay other payments, including superannuation, WorkCover and associated costs. According to Ballarat trades hall, cash-in-hand arrangements are occurring not only in retail and hospitality but in domestic building, aged care, private residential providers and many other sectors. I am pleased workers in the Ballarat region have the support of Ballarat trades hall and local unions to raise these issues.

I could talk a lot more about the penalties and everything like that but unfortunately my time is limited, so I commend this very, very important legislation to the house to protect Victorian workers.