Labor baulking at union calls for bosses to be jailed for wage theft

The Australian, June 6, 2017

Federal Labor is baulking at union calls for company executives to face jail for deliberate under­payment of workers’ wages, saying the ALP is “wary of criminalising industrial relations matters”.

Unions are ramping up a ­campaign for legislative action to tackle wage theft, calling on the Coalition and the ALP to back the publication of a national register of companies found to have ­engaged in the deliberate under­payment of workers. ACTU president Ged Kearney said on social media last week that “wage theft should incur criminal charges”.

Former ALP vice-president and Transport Workers Union leader Tony Sheldon is calling for Labor to make executives ­engaged in “wage theft” subject to criminal prosecution and potential jail terms.

The union is seeking support at state ALP conferences across the country to make wage and superannuation theft a criminal ­offence, carrying a jail term.

Mr Sheldon defined wage theft as “underpayment of wages, non-payment for work completed, flipping on to different awards to avoid paying correct wages and non-payment of superannuation”. He said the action needed to be “overtly persistent or flagrantly wilful”.

ACTU secretary Sally Mc­Manus called for action to address wage theft, including increased penalties, but stopped short of seeking jail terms.

“It is too easy for employers to make wage theft a business model because they know the chances of being caught are low, the hurdles facing working people trying to recover the money are high, and the penalties for being caught are no disincentive,’’ Ms McManus told The Australian. “It is difficult and expensive for working people to recover the money owed to them. This should not be the case. All three areas need to be addressed if we are to dismantle business models based on wage theft.”

Opposition workplace relations spokesman Brendan O’Connor said Labor supported higher penalties being imposed on employers found to have engaged in wage theft, but he reacted cautiously to the call for jail terms for executives.

“Labor understands why there are calls to increase penalties against rogue employers (who) exploit their workers but would be wary of criminalising industrial relations matters,’’ he said.

Mr Sheldon said the union would keep pushing for wage theft to be made an offence, carrying a jail term, across Australia. “The ALP in Victoria has already passed a motion on wage theft and we are preparing motions and seeking support for them during upcoming ALP conferences.’’

He said the resolutions would call for a register of companies found to have engaged in wage theft, which would let prospective employees and contractors know about the behaviour and practices of employers.

“Many working people currently must submit to police checks before they are hired,’’ Mr Sheldon said.

“The same should apply to employers. Candidates for jobs should know how a company treats its employees before accepting a job.

“This is about correcting a wrong that has persisted for too long and is a festering wound on our communities and economy.

“The Australian economy is currently faltering, with low wages one of the main problems. If the federal government wants to correct this, it must treat wage theft and superannuation non-­payment seriously.”