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'Wage theft' inquiry headed into dangerous ground

The Queensland Parliament's inquiry into what it terms "wage theft" risks turning mathematical errors into criminal offences, Australian Industry Group Queensland Head Shane Rodgers said today.

The Parliamentary inquiry, which begins public hearings this week, defines wage theft as "when an employer fails to provide their employees with the full wage or salary to which they are entitled".

"The characterisation of such behaviour in terms of 'theft' is misleading, inappropriate and has the potential to unfairly brand every failure to correctly calculate an employee's pay as criminal," Mr Rodgers said.

"This is taking us to very dangerous ground. The vast majority of employers devote considerable resources to navigating the often-complex remuneration maze to ensure their people are paid correctly.

"The idea that someone misinterpreting a requirement or making a mathematical miscalculation could be criminally culpable is a sobering proposition for Queensland companies, particularly small businesses with limited payroll resources.

"The notion of holding an inquiry into a loaded buzz-term like 'wage theft' is also the wrong approach to a complex issue and a highly inappropriate starting point for a balanced community discussion on wage compliance," Mr Rodgers said.

Ai Group's submission to the inquiry makes the following points:

  • Ai Group encourages lawful workplace practices by all parties, and does not support any deliberate underpayment of wages or other entitlements.
  • Ai Group spends considerable time helping to ensure that members can work out the appropriate pay rate for their people.
  • Many instances of incorrect payments are the result of misunderstanding or error by companies. Employers should not be labelled "thieves" for such mistakes. Exposure to criminal penalties, including imprisonment, for underpayments would discourage investment and employment in Queensland. 
  • There are already considerable disincentives for employers to underpay employees under the Fair Work Act. If there is a systematic pattern of deliberate misconduct, individuals can be fined $126,000 and corporations $630,000.
  • Any move by Queensland to go it alone on new wage compliance laws would undermine the good work done creating a consistent national IR system under the Fair Work Act. The then Industrial Relations Minister Cameron Dick was highly supportive of this national approach at the time.
  • Workers have access to a number of options if they think they have been underpaid. The Fair Work Ombudsman's (FWO) 2016-17 annual report said requests for assistance were resolved in an average of 15 days and most disputes were resolved in seven days.
  • The FWO's audit of companies previously found to be in breach of workplace laws found the majority had subsequently become compliant.

For further comment:
Shane Rodgers – 0423 021 268