We have heard three contributions from our friends opposite on this bill, and three wildly different propositions have been advanced. I will come back and talk about some of those—but I rise to make my contribution on the Wage Theft Bill 2020.
The bill before us today fulfils yet another election promise made by the Andrews Labor government. We went to the Victorian people in 2018 promising that if re-elected we would legislate to make the theft of wages a criminal offence, and today we honour that pledge. It is a bill in the finest of Labor traditions.
From the outset I want to congratulate the Legislative Assembly’s Penalty Rates and Fair Pay Select Committee from the previous Parliament, because it was that group which shone a light on some of the issues the bill is dealing with today. It was a quality report that amongst other things made a recommendation—I think from memory it was recommendation 6—that the Victorian government introduce legislation to create a new criminal offence with the option of custodial sentence for dishonestly underpaying wages or entitlements. Of course the point here is that it did not take a pandemic for this government to acknowledge that wages theft was a real issue in our community and needed to be addressed.
It is a very proud day for me and the men and women of the mighty Victorian trade union movement, who I have been so privileged to be a part of as a rank-and-file member, shop steward, activist, elected official et cetera for over 30 years. I think Mr O’Donohue mentioned the great CPSU in his contribution earlier today, and I am with you on that, Mr O’Donohue, they are a fine union. I am a life member of that union and because of that the labour movement, the union movement, will never leave me and I will never leave it.
I begin my contribution today in this way because you see in all the time that I have spent in the union movement I cannot recall ever having met a union official who has not encountered some form of wage theft or one that has not been engaged in the struggle to rid our workplaces of it. Disputes of every type imaginable: non-payment of overtime, incorrect payment of ordinary hourly rates of pay, underpayment because the boss is doing the worker a favour by giving them experience in a higher paying job, refusal to pay penalty rates, increasing hours with no increase in pay, cash jobs—and we have all heard of those—or just straight out a flat refusal to pay any wages for time worked. I know in my time as an official at both the CPSU and the Finance Sector Union these disputes were far too common.
The union movement has seen it all, and wherever wage theft has emerged in my time it has been the union movement that has been out there advocating, agitating and representing the worker or workers affected. I find it interesting some of the contributions made in this place today on this bill—such in-depth knowledge of the union movement and the work that the union movement has done. A very convenient argument when it suits those opposite. I look forward to them continuing to champion the cause of the union movement because again I am with them. They are a very, very necessary part of a very vibrant democracy.
So today is a proud day as collectively we in the labour movement put another building block in place towards fairer and just workplaces. Today’s bill of course will not stop unscrupulous employers from committing these crimes going forward but what it will do is it will equip workers, unions and the courts with a legal platform on which to pursue those stolen wages and to obtain justice for those who have been transgressed against. This has not always been the case, which is why this bill is such a critical piece of legislation for working people.
For those who have suffered stolen wages in the past, and my colleague Ms Terpstra touched on this, the path to justice has been unnecessarily costly, overly bureaucratic and in many instances most unsatisfactory in its resolution, if indeed resolution was found at all. On far too many occasions it was just too difficult for the worker to pursue these claims and they would settle their complaint for far less money than they were actually owed. They simply did not have the tools, the time or the resources available to see the complaint through. This bill addresses some of those inadequacies. For example, we now have a body to investigate an alleged crime of wage theft and to prosecute those offences where appropriate. When those new provisions are combined with the Fair Work Act 2009 civil framework to enforce employer obligations, including the mechanisms for employees to seek recovery of entitlements through the courts, both of the criminal and civil elements will be a feature of our system here in Victoria, and long may they continue.
It is encouraging to hear that the federal government is also considering legislation to make wages theft a crime and I would urge them to do so in line with the bill that is before this place today, but we cannot wait for that to occur. We must instead act on what is happening today in Victoria and to fulfil the promise that we made at the 2018 election to the people of Victoria.
As we think about the implications of this bill, it is very important that we think about who has been hardest hit by wages theft. Of course wages theft affects all aspects of our economy, and whilst it is difficult to quantify, it stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if you deny a worker and their family their proper entitlements it logically diminishes their ability to participate economically and socially. Whether at the supermarket or buying clothes and other essential items, maintaining a roof over the family’s head, playing sports, attending school, the list goes on and on, and we have all heard a thousand times over the devastating effect that poverty has over the lives that it pervades. When the most vulnerable cannot rely upon that most basic principle of a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, the slope becomes very, very slippery very, very quickly.
And the wages theft effect does wash through the economy. It is low-income workers who spend all of their money simply to survive from one payday to the next, and as soon as you cut off some or all of that wage, so too do you stop their spending, and you do not need me to join the dots—although having listened to some of the contributions here this afternoon, we may need an economics lecture at some point because, gee, the convenient arguments that have been put forward today are just breathtaking.
Mrs McArthur talked about the number of businesses in Western Victoria and went through statistics. I will give you some statistics. It is estimated that 79 per cent of hospitality employers did not comply with the national awards wage system from 2013 to 2016. That is right: four out of every five employers in one of the biggest sectors of our economy, covering important industries such as travel and tourism, food and beverage, accommodation, retail et cetera, those workers in those industries were not being paid their correct entitlements. In 2018 the Fair Work ombudsman reported—and this is a staggering statistic—that 25 per cent of employers who had been already been audited for underpayment continued to underpay employees even after the audit. They are the staggering figures, they are the staggering statistics which give rise to this bill in this place today. Wages theft is an abomination, and those who oppose this bill would like you to believe that it is a Labor government that is having a crack at small business. Well, I frankly do not care if you are small, medium or large; if you have underpaid your workers their proper entitlements and you are found to have done so deliberately, then cop your right whack.
Just have a look at some of the employers that have shamefully been linked to the underpayment of wages through the media in recent times: Woolworths, Coles, Bunnings, 7-Eleven, the Vue Group, George Calombaris. You would hardly call any of them small, and nor can you ever persuade me that they have made a simple clerical error. Low-paid workers in precarious employment arrangements where there is a significant power imbalance between them and their employer are at risk of having their wages stolen by that employer. It is bad for the individual, it is bad for their family and it is bad for the economy. And in fact it is just plain criminal.
It would be very remiss if in dealing with this bill this Parliament did not acknowledge probably the worst known incidence of stolen wages in this country, and that is from our First Nations people. It is fact that jurisdiction after jurisdiction in this country, including this state of Victoria, legislated to control the lives of First Nations people—where they lived, who they could marry, what their employment and wages arrangements would be. Hideous pieces of legislation such as the Aboriginal Protection Act 1869 enshrined into law intergenerational poverty that we still see the effects of today.
The stolen generation, where an estimated 100 000 children were forcibly removed from their families and placed into institutions and subsequently in many cases placed into servitude, where they did not see wages at all—let there be no doubt about this nation’s history and let there be no doubt about the role that slavery has played in it. As we now know, many of the stolen generation were thrust into lives where they were vilified, persecuted and abused. Their fight for these injustices and their stolen wages continues today, and all strength to them. The Guardian reported that former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie estimated that in Queensland alone the stolen wages of First Nations people between 1939 and 1972 stood in excess of $500 million. Imagine that, and then imagine the disadvantage that comes with that, from having no money and knowing that it is the law of the land that keeps you oppressed. A class action on behalf of 10 000 of those First Nations people recently reached a settlement with the Queensland government for $190 million—I would suggest a mere drop in the ocean of what was really owed.
Employers who do the right thing have absolutely nothing to fear from this bill. It does not place any additional burden on an employer who is complying with their obligations and correctly paying the wages and entitlements of their employees. In fact, as I travel around my electorate of Northern Victoria, employers who are doing the right thing often lament that someone further down the road is undercutting them by underpaying the wages and entitlements of their workers and, therefore, obtaining an unfair economic advantage through potentially criminal activity. Under these laws we will now have the capacity to investigate those dodgy employers and to prosecute them for stealing wages. The value of work and the dignity of work are things that we as a society understand are so critical to our lives. Enshrining in law that it is a criminal offence to steal the wages and entitlements of a worker is plain common sense.
We are all dependent on our income to survive, and the level and frequency of that income determines the standard of living that we enjoy. Banks use our income levels to determine how much they might lend us for a housing loan. Our income level is used to determine the superannuation that is paid into our retirement fund each fortnight. The tax office uses it to determine how much tax we pay and so on and so on. It impacts just about every facet of our existence, so when that wage is threatened or stolen, particularly when there is so little of it to begin with, it can be debilitating. That an employer could have had such a profound impact on a worker’s life up until now without being held accountable for unscrupulous actions is, quite frankly, scary.
Equally scary is the opposition’s amendment to defer the application of this legislation by another 12 months because—in inverted commas—‘Now is not the right time’. When is it? When is it the right time? We copped a lecture this morning from the Leader of the Opposition when he was talking about police stations and talking about crime and how we are soft on crime. This morning we were soft on crime; now we have got a bill to deal with crime and we are too hard on crime. Clearly, this mob over there, they jump from argument to argument depending on what best suits them at the time. I think the Victorian people will see that for what it is. I genuinely do not understand why the coalition would propose that we sanction that criminal activity for a moment longer than we have to, so I do not support their proposal.
I do, however, support giving workers, unions, good employers and the courts all of the tools necessary to ensure that those that steal the wages and entitlements of working people are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
I commend the bill to the house.