Ms SHING Eastern Victoria



Second reading

Tuesday 16th June 2020


Ms SHING (Eastern Victoria) (19:32): I rise this evening to speak on the Wage Theft Bill 2020, and I do so noting a number of really important contributions that have been made around this chamber in the course of this debate and also in the other place which recognise at long last the importance of a more rigorous framework to enforce the rights of workers, who are too often vulnerable, exploited and powerless in the face of relentless exploitation. What we see, more commonly now than ever before, is that it is far too easy to accept a slap on the wrist and to make some token contrition payment, which occurred in the case of George Calombaris to the tune of only $200 000 after an underpayment claim which in fact stretches beyond $7 million to hardworking men and women in his hospitality empire, an empire which enabled him to line his pockets and to establish a vastly lucrative trade while those who facilitated that trade were left without the necessary payment of their accrued entitlements. What we see time and time again is a flagrant abuse of the minimum terms and conditions which apply by design—of the safety net which exists under the Fair Work Act 2009, under the minimum conditions afforded throughout the national employment standards, under the award system, under superannuation legislation and under workplace culture, which is intended but hardly can be said to achieve the necessary level of protection for workers.

What we hear when debates of this nature occur in chambers like this is a repeated claim by those from Liberal and National benches that now is not the right time—and we have heard that here tonight—because we are in the throes of recovering from pandemic, because we are in the throes of reacting to global downturn in markets, because there are challenges faced by the agricultural and horticultural and construction and mining sectors as they relate to drought and to downturn and downward pressure on commodities, prices, et cetera, et cetera.

Well, the excuses have to stop, and without criminal sanctions the excuses will be all that workers have to look to when engaging a lawyer, their union or in fact, at expense to them, their own resources to seek an underpayment claim to be made out in the Magistrates Court or through the ATO or, in the event of issues around wage slavery, the police—and this is a common refrain.

We have heard tonight people talk about how important it is that the commonwealth is moving to introduce criminal standards for wage theft. In fact when we go back to the annals of history, we can see that last year—that is right, it was last year—the commonwealth indicated an intention to introduce wage theft laws which would in fact create that criminal level of responsibility for underpayment and non-payment where it was dishonest, wilful and flagrant, and yet a year later we see that nothing has been done. I suspect that when it comes to doing something about this situation at a federal level, the Prime Minister will run away from this issue with his tail between his legs citing all sorts of reasons as to why now is not a good time.

That is why here in Victoria, as part of meeting our election promises, it has been so important for us to embed wage theft into the Crimes Act 1958 to create offences which sit alongside obtaining financial advantage by deception and the property offences that exist within that act; to make out the requirement for employers to not just keep adequate records but refrain from falsifying them; to create a Victorian inspectorate which within Industrial Relations Victoria and the Victorian public service more broadly will have the power to inspect and to enter and to require and compel the provision of information to demonstrate to that organisation’s satisfaction that obligations are being met.

One of the reasons that this is necessary is that unions have been hamstrung from being able to gain right of entry. Unions are in fact facing a repeat of history around ongoing attempts to reform the industrial relations system, the awards system and the system of representation by elected or other representative organisations, such as the National Union of Workers; the Australian Services Union, who have systematically uncovered sector- and industry-wide underpayments; United Voice; the workers associated with the Australian Workers Union; and the AMWU. All of these unions repeatedly attract the ire of the coalition, and the reason I think that they attract the ire of the coalition is not the Marxist dialogue which Dr Bach so conveniently quoted in his contribution; it is not some sort of vicious, Dickensian level of hardship, as Mrs McArthur referred to in her contribution; it is not for any reason other than the fact that employers want to be able to regulate themselves with nothing more than a slap on the wrist from the Fair Work ombudsman—if ever it gets around to it, given the significant and considerable backlog of matters to which it has to attend.

Now is the time not just to talk about it but to enact into law a set of protections. So the Lovell’s newsagency in Shepparton had an agreement which failed the better off overall test back in 2011 because it sought in fact to undermine overtime payments and to leave workers less well off under the award than they would otherwise have been had the agreement not applied. Those sorts of things, if they were not dishonest, would in fact form a defence, because that might well be an honest mistake and able to be rectified.

We must do better. We must do better by the workers whose entitlements when added up in the aggregate constitute billions of dollars of lost and missing wages and entitlements.

We owe it to Victorians not just to fulfil our promises made prior to the election but to make good on a better system which has a greater level of accountability and accessibility than that which those opposite might seek to rely upon in a way that means the exploitation of vulnerable workers can continue. I look forward to seeing this bill debated, passed and made legislation in the state of Victoria so that while we wait for Prime Minister Morrison to stop dithering on this issue, as he does on so many other things, workers in this state at least will have a measure of protection against flagrant and dishonest conduct by too many employers who act without any interest in their workers’ wellbeing. I commend this bill to the house.