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Think wage theft only happens in hospitality? Think again!

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(Image CC.2.0 by torbakhopper via Flickr)

Not just service workers,  wage theft can happen to anyone in any industry  even at the ABC and RSPCA. William Olson reports.

THE MASSES can be forgiven in thinking that the wage theft epidemic only happens in hospitality. 

I’m not in hospitality, some may be guilty of thinking, and I don’t work in a cafe or a restaurant, so I have nothing to fear from the George Calombarises of the labour movement.

But recently, a number of cases outside the hospitality industry have illustrated that wage theft can happen to anyone, in any industry.

One has occurred at one of Australia’s major – and widely respected – mainstream media broadcasters. And even not-for-profit agencies are not immune from the practice, either.

First comes the emerging news from the offices of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, where ABC directors will be paying back approximately 2,500 casual staff members who had been underpaid as much as $22.9 million – an average of over $9,000 per worker and as much as $19,000 owed to a single worker – over a pattern from the last six years.

Prior to Monday, when the national broadcaster formally announced plans to reimburse the casual staff affected via money in its next budget, the ABC’s directors had not responded to queries, complaints or grievances from those workers or their unions — the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) and the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) reported that ten months had passed since the CPSU and MEAA last made contact with the national broadcaster over disputes on the back wages, but no progress had been made since then to reimburse the casual staff members affected.

The ABC had admitted in January once the CPSU and MEAA made that previous inquiry that it performed its own internal investigation and reported the wage shortfalls through proper channels, citing that the pattern had been occurring since 2013 — coincidentally, when the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison LNP governments first assumed office and began to cut the budgets to the taxpayer-funded broadcaster.

In the 2018 Federal Budget, Scott Morrison – then the Federal treasurer – announced that $84 million would be cut from the ABC’s budget so it could “live within their means”. This added to the accumulating a total of $254 million in cuts from the Coalition during the six years it has retained the Treasury benches.

On 11 June 2019, Emma McDonald, then ABC’s head of public affairs (now senior advisor to Communications Minister Paul Fletcher), said in a statement that the ABC would be reviewing how the affected casual staff got underpaid and that there would be a review of processes that led to this situation.

'The Fair Work Ombudsman has been notified and the ABC is liaising with them in relation to this situation,' said Ms McDonald.

'The Corporation is having discussions with the CPSU, which brought the matter to the attention of management, and intends to work with affected staff, the CPSU and the MEAA to address their concerns,' she continued.

'This error should not have occurred, and the ABC apologises to any casual employee who has been underpaid. The ABC is actively working to remedy this for affected employees as soon as possible.'

The ACTU, meanwhile, concurred with the CPSU that while the ABC’s board had more than ample opportunities to fix the situation in a proactive manner, adding that it had let the situation get out of hand for far too long and that the Federal Government’s budget cuts to the ABC were no excuse for it to occur.

“ABC management have overseen wage theft and sat on money that is not theirs for far too long. This is money that casual staff need to pay their bills,” ACTU secretary Sally McManus was reported as saying, in response.

While the ABC’s situation endured in a systemic fashion, the Royal Society to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in New South Wales discovered it had underpaid 41 staff up to a collective $120,000 over almost a decade, due to what the RSPCA NSW termed a “payroll error”.

The shortfall was discovered by a RSPCA NSW employee who raised the flag to management, thereby triggering an internal investigation. The NSW branch of the RSPCA then called in global consultancy firm Herbert Smith Freehills to determine the extent of the problem.

As the RSPCA (NSW) performed its own internal review, it thus avoided scrutiny from unions.

Tony Burke, the Opposition industrial relations spokesperson, called upon the RSPCA (NSW) to act quickly to immediately reimburse wages to 19 past and 22 current staff members.

'All employers – whether they’re multinational giants or not-for-profit charities – must pay their staff properly,' said Burke in a statement.

“It is incumbent on employers of all sizes to ensure they understand their obligations to their workers. They must obey employment laws the same way they obey taxation laws.  Every Australian worker has a right to be paid what they’re owed.

So, if the practice of wage theft is so prevalent outside of the hospitality industry, what can be done to curtail it? At the moment, pretty much the same processes which pertain to the practice inside the hospitality industry are being spun in motion to deal with the issue.

On 19 September, Christian Porter – the Federal Attorney-General, who also runs the Morrison government’s industrial relations portfolio – put out a discussion paper calling for community input concerning the criminalisation of wage theft violations.

'The Morrison Government is committed to introducing strong and effective criminal sanctions to help stamp out deliberate and systematic wage theft by Australian employers,' the Attorney-General’s office said in a statement, when the discussion paper plans were announced.

'The Government has already taken steps to strengthen the civil penalties available under the Fair Work Act for underpayments by employers, but clearly more needs to be done to target the most serious types of offending which we believe are worthy of criminal sanctions,' said Porter, explaining the impetus behind the plans.

However, Burke and those within the union movement have asked for more direct action on the issue and not yet more bureaucratic time-wasting.

'A "discussion paper" isn’t action,' said Burke.

“Australian workers need to know that their employers cannot rip them off with impunity. And they need to know that if they are short-changed, their claims will be taken seriously and they’ll be repaid fully and quickly,” added Burke.

McManus concurred, adding that the systems outside the epidemic of the wage theft crisis are what underpaid employees find especially excruciating.

'The Morrison Government has allowed wage theft to become a business model where a slow and expensive legal system allows employers to delay and frustrate working people’s access to justice,' said McManus.

William Olson is a freelance journalist and hospitality professional. You can follow William on Twitter @DeadSexyWaiter.

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