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Victory for Andrews Labor Government as anti-wage theft law is passed

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Daniel Andrews has secured a legislative victory in anti-wage theft with the help of Attorney-General Jill Hennessy (Screenshots via YouTube)

The Andrews Government has had a victory in Victoria with the passing of new laws that will serve as a win for industrial relations, writes William Olson.

IN A VOTE which will undoubtedly please workers and unions alike, Victoria’s parliament passed a Bill criminalising the intentional practice of wage theft on Tuesday 16 June.

The Wage Theft Bill, was viewed as a cornerstone promise in Premier Daniel Andrews's state re-election campaign in 2018. It now sees guilty parties – such as business owners, managers, shopkeepers and accountants, or anyone connected to a business enterprise – who deliberately withhold award wages and related entitlements established under the Fair Work Act (2009) from their workers risk prison sentences up to ten years and face fines upwards of $198,264 for individuals and $991,320 for companies.

These are real penalties for real theft. And something which has delivered the desired result on that Andrews campaign promise, helping cement his legacy as a much-loved two-term premier for Victoria, despite what has otherwise been a bad week for the state’s ALP reputation in the halls of Spring Street.

Victorian Minister for Industrial Relations Tim Pallas said after the vote succeeded:

“We said we would replace the existing legal regime and make the changes necessary to protect workers from unscrupulous employers and that’s exactly what we’ve done.”

Yet the process did not come without its share of fiery debate with passions up in blazes on both sides. Ministers in the Andrews ALP Government maintained that while actions to punish wage theft were long overdue, their solid stance thwarted one brazen opposition claim after another that the new legislation would allegedly hurt businesses’ attempts at turning profits, further complicate so-called “complex” award structures and prohibit creations of new small business enterprises.

And before the whole of the parliament’s Legislative Council came close to burning their midnight oil in order to get their votes in – a motion had already been passed to extend normal sitting hours by 60 minutes beyond the standard 10:00 PM adjournment time – the LNP expressed further reservations that this Bill could be cancelled out by any coinciding legislation at the federal level, as per the Morrison Government’s ongoing reform negotiations on industrial relations.

But in the end, Attorney-General Jill Hennessy, the whole of the Andrews State ALP Government and members of the union movement which initially raised the red flag on the wage theft epidemic celebrated a landmark win for the industrial relations movement in late-night fashion.

Hennessy said:

“We promised to criminalise wage theft and we have delivered on that promise — employers who steal money and entitlements from their workers deserve to face the full force of the law.”

Wage theft has been a hot-button topic over the last several years in various industries characterised as being ripe for exploitation, including but not limited to hospitality, agriculture, the building trades and retail. The Victorian law now exists as a test model to other proposed legislative acts in other states and, ultimately, the Federal Government, all of which are generally understood to be works in progress.

Back in March, when the Bill was drafted and introduced by Hennessey, its intended outcome was to bring about a system of real punishment to bring wage theft offenders to justice, complete with investigations and enforcement powers granted to any among a number of Wage Theft Inspectorate officers.

Hennessy said at the time, regarding a lack of accountability with which the state of Victoria could oversee punishments for wage theft offenders:

“The existing legal regime has failed to prevent the exploitation of Victorian workers by unscrupulous employers.”

Pallas added:

“These laws and the new inspectorate body will hold employers accountable — workers should never be put in a situation where they need to make a complaint just to be paid properly.”

And the proposed laws were not to remedy the non- or underpayment of wages alone. In some cases which have been reported to the Fair Work Ombudsman, workers had also cited matters of superannuation and other forms of remuneration not being adhered to.

Hennessey said upon the introduction of her Bill:

“This problem is systematic — that’s why our laws will apply beyond wages and include allowances, gratuities, superannuation and other accruals such as leave, as well as ensuring directors and officers are held to account.”

Following the vote, reactions from Victoria’s union movement illustrated a glowing satisfaction of a state government agenda doing what it set out to accomplish.

Luke Hilakari, secretary for the Victoria Trades Hall Council, said:

This is momentous and pivotal for working people in Victoria, who have been saying enough is enough, it’s time wage theft is a crime and bosses stealing wages are properly punished so that wage theft as a business model comes to an end.

 

Unions, working people and activists campaigned hard in the lead-up to the last state election to make wage theft a crime in Victoria, and we’re proud to have delivered this for working people with the action of the Andrews government.

Susie Allison, a spokesperson for the UWU’s Victorian branch, said:

United Workers Union members have led the fight against wage theft and the need for tougher laws.  We congratulate the Victorian Government for enacting this critical reform.

 

Wage theft is more than a cost to the economy, it is about a fundamental threat to Australia’s social contract, and it is a driver of social inequality.”

Others welcome the added presence of the Wage Theft Inspectorate statutory authority as a catalyst for enforcing award wages and entitlements which are laws bound by the Fair Work Act (2009).

Migrant Workers Centre director Matt Kunkel said:

“New mechanisms for speedy recovery are a huge win for temporary migrants who too often have not seen justice because of lengthy court processes.”

Felicity Sowerbutts, director of the Young Workers Centre in Melbourne, said:

“The wage theft business model will be stopped in its tracks because there will now be a real deterrent for dodgy bosses who have been stealing the wages of young workers.”

Yet Hospo Voice, a digitally-engineered union created under the auspices of the UWU’s predecessor, United Voice, geared towards retail hospitality sector workers in bars, clubs, pubs, cafes and restaurants, can be viewed as the union organisation whose impact bore the greatest influence towards the need for the anti-wage theft legislation.

Julien Gibson, a Hospo Voice member with more than 15 years of experience as a chef, was one of those workers who felt empowered with the strength-in-numbers mentality to help sell the need for such legislation to the Victorian Parliament:

From today, all workers will know they have the full force of the law behind them, and that will be an absolute game-changer.

 

We fought so damn hard for this. I am so proud of every one of us who joined this fight. We hit the streets. We yelled our lungs out. And step by step, we built a powerful union of hospitality workers who will stop at nothing to make sure hospo workers are paid fairly and treated with respect.

As for Premier Andrews, he has not said much about the victory — perhaps rightfully so, as a reflection on his character and that of the much-admired qualities of his brand of leadership in Victoria’s top job.

In the last several days, during the processes around and following the vote, Andrews has appeared content to – whenever necessary – blend into its background. He has allowed the likes of Hennessy and Pallas to take credit for its passage and for those in and around the union movement to revel in how any future impact of the new wage theft legislation would affect them, after the legislation takes effect from the middle of 2021.

This is typical of Andrews. Unlike some high-profile leaders, on the domestic or global stages, the wins and losses are not about him at the top but shared with a team-first mentality of those around him. And that’s a quality of his leadership that is not going to change anytime soon.

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

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