A Queensland Parliamentary Inquiry into so-called "wage theft" has recommended making underpayment of wages a criminal offence "where the conduct is proven to be deliberate or reckless".
"Wage payments have fallen within the industrial relations and civil-contract realm for all of our history for good reason. And there are already substantial penalties for any company that deliberately underpays its workers. Under changes made to the Fair Work Act last year, deliberate underpayments attract penalties 10 times the level of penalties for other underpayments," Ai Group Queensland Head, Shane Rodgers, said today.
"Placing employers at risk of imprisonment for underpayments would impose a serious disincentive on setting up businesses and employing staff. The whole community benefits when businesses are growing and employing more staff. Conversely, encouraging employers to shut up shop because of unfair and unbalanced laws, and the risk of imprisonment, will adversely affect the entire community.
"If we bring wage payments into the criminal system, what happens next? Will misuse of sick leave become known as 'time theft' and also become a criminal offence? Will failure to pay a bill or underpayment of an account become a criminal offence?
"Criminalising wage underpayment would potentially flood the criminal justice system with matters it is not resourced to handle. There are also dangers in the Queensland Government yet again breaking away from the national Fair Work system it supported a decade ago.
"We do not condone the deliberate underpayment or exploitation of employees. From our experience the vast majority of businesses work very hard to ensure their employees are properly paid. Our workplace advice line receives thousands of calls a year from businesses seeking clarity on these matters.
"The key objective of governments in this space should be to make it as easy as possible for employers and employees to know their rights. The compliance system needs to be sufficiently robust to deter the small proportion of employers who would be tempted to do the wrong thing.
"In this context, we welcome the recommendations seeking to better inform the community on wages issues and particularly ensuring international students and other vulnerable workers are aware of their rights.
"The Government's priority should be to help both employees and employers better understand worker entitlements. It should also help to ensure there is an environment in which workers feel comfortable seeking advice if they believe they have been wrongly paid.
"The Queensland Government would be better off working with other governments to improve the current compliance system rather than creating another ad-hoc state regime.
"We run the risk of entering a messy compliance minefield that just adds to complexity of an already complex system and bogs down an over-burdened criminal justice system with matters best dealt with elsewhere," Mr Rodgers said.
Further comment: Shane Rodgers – 0423 021 268