Legislation to criminalise serious wage theft proposed by Attorney General Christian Porter late February, comes with almost no teeth. His talk of “heavy penalties” is stranded without enforcers.
With around 25 Fair Work Ombudsman field inspectors across the whole country, the legislation will be little more than a toothless tiger.
In Australia there’s 800,000 companies employing around 13 million workers. Fair Work conducted just 2,800 audits of workplaces in 2018-19 and issued 247 compliance notices. That is just 0.35% of employers nationally in a year.
At that rate they would take 300 years to get to them all just once.
An army ready to go
The proposed criminalisation of serious wage theft is mere virtue signalling by the government, the creation of a hullaballoo about action where little would be achieved.
If the government wanted to change conditions around wage theft – and make it dangerous for employers to undertake – it would have to get many multiples of the number of inspectors into workplaces with the authority it proposes for Fair Work Ombudsman Inspectors.
Instead governments have cut the ombudsman’s funding nearly in half over the last decade to $126 million.
An army of inspectors is readily available, ready to go, in the form of union organisers who used to have powers to inspect employment records, attend workplaces without notice, interview employees and find out what is happening. There are thousands across the country and their organisations are keen to enforce criminalising of wage theft.
Recent high-profile examples of wage theft involve employers understating hours worked, paying at lower wage classifications than the work employees do, overcharging visa workers for accommodation, transport, meals and so on, failing to train and upskill employees into higher paid positions as required in employment and visa conditions, and more.
Inspection to discover these rorts requires more than an audit of records. It needs inspection of worksites and interviews with employees in situations where they can be confident of protection. Many cases launched by the Ombudsman have been exposed through union action, even without the unions having powers of the Fair Work Ombudsman.
Forget the window dressing!
Here it is in a nutshell. The government won’t provide anywhere near the numbers of workplace inspectors needed for the job. But unions have the inspectors – organisers – ready to go. Instead a federal administration under the thumb of U.S. imperialism is determined to nobble the power of employees collaborating in unions.
It deliberately leaves government no practical capacity to deal with such problems, however urgent action to stamp them out may be. All they are left with is empty virtue signalling.
Christian Porter’s proposed window dressing would see employers who abide by Australia’s laws – and still exploit surplus value from their workers’ labour power – paying regulation wages (however poor they may be).
The corporate sharks would go on thieving wages as an effective business model with low risk of discovery, and opportunities to slip out the back way if exposed. In the process the sharks are able to undercut the somewhat reputable employers threatening their viability.
Workers scorn the virtue signalling. Real power is in the demand for real criminalisation of wage theft, by empowering workers and unions to hit thieving employers.