“Systemic, sustained and shameful”

Senate’s damning report on wage theft

With inflation going up and wages flat, spare a thought for the thousands of people who are victims of wage theft. I’ve written a lot about wage theft, which is a business strategy for many employers. The Adelaide victims sometimes come to me for help to get another job.

The Senate released a report last week which said wage theft is endemic and needs to be stopped. Below is an edited story from the ABC about a teenager who is taking her fight to the Fair Work Commission.

Seventeen-year-old Chantelle Zentveld got an after-school job at the fast-food franchise Subway, but she soon suspected she was being underpaid. She is now taking Subway to the Fair Work Commission to terminate the enterprise agreement she was working under, which had an expiry date of 2015, and covers around 60 Subway employers in three states.

These ‘Zombie’ agreements are based on outdated award conditions, with workers still paid under the old enterprise agreement.

Last week, a Senate inquiry in to Wage Theft, tabled its report. It found the unlawful underpayment of employees in Australia was systemic, sustained and shameful.

Most workers are too scared to speak out about underpayment because they’re fearful of the repercussions, but it’s a huge problem, and is estimated to cost workers around $6 billion a year in lost pay and superannuation. Migrant workers and international students are at a higher risk of exploitation.

The current regulatory framework is inadequate for pursuing wage and superannuation theft. The system allows for both the conditions that gives rise to exploitation and then creates barriers for victims to pursue their underpaid wages claims using the existing legal structures.

While wage theft is more common in lower-paid industries like hospitality, retail, horticulture, and cleaning, some of the nation’s biggest employers have also been caught up in underpayment scandals including Qantas, Coles, Woolworths, CBA, Westpac, NAB, 7-11, Super Retail Group and the ABC.

The senate inquiry’s key recommendation is for the federal government to outlaw wage theft. Several states already have laws criminalising wage theft.

Wage theft is also widespread at universities. Natalia Maystorovich is part of a wage theft claim against The University of Sydney. The casual academic is paid for 28 hours of preparation and face-to-face teaching a week, but says to get the job done she needs to work between 40-45 hours a week.

“It’s placed as your responsibility because you failed in being able to do it within the hours that are allocated to you.” Natalia alleges she is owed more than $20,000.

“They’re relying on the fact that we’re going to do it anyway, we’ll just get the job done. Because if we don’t get it done, we also won’t have a job next semester.”

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