Attorney-General Christian Porter will introduce legislation into federal parliament in weeks to criminalise the most serious forms of deliberate worker exploitation, including jail terms and fines.
Where underpayment of workers does not meet the threshold of criminal conduct, a range of legislative options, including banning directors from sitting on boards, has been released by the government for public feedback by April 3.
“Like most Australians, the government has been appalled by the number of companies that have recently admitted short-changing their staff, in some cases by hundreds of millions of dollars,” Mr Porter said.
“While it’s understood the vast majority of these underpayments were not deliberate and were rectified swiftly, they are incredibly serious and border on negligence, given we are talking about sophisticated organisations that should be capable of meeting their obligations under workplace law.”
The Australian revealed in November that the Coalition would consider empowering the Fair Work Ombudsman to pursue banning order applications against directors of underpaying companies.
Mr Porter has also expressed support for an ACTU proposal allowing individual workers to go to the Fair Work Commission to have underpayment claims dealt with quickly and efficiently.
A new government discussion paper asks if courts should be given greater power to make banning orders preventing companies employing workers on certain visa types, and to issue adverse publicity orders that force companies to disclose their offences.
“The Coalition has already increased some civil penalties by a factor of 10, but it is clear to me that more still needs to be done … such as disqualifying directors of organisations that continue to get it wrong,” Mr Porter said.
The government has previously accepted in principle a recommendation in a Migrant Workers Taskforce report that courts be given the power to make adverse publicity orders and banning orders against employers who underpay migrant workers.
Director disqualification orders are used in corporations and consumer law to prevent certain people from managing a corporation. However, the Fair Work Act does not specifically empower courts to order disqualification of directors.
The government is also seeking submissions on the effectiveness of the Fair Work Ombudsman’s compliance and enforcement tools, including if it should have the same information gathering powers as the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission and the Australian Securities & Investments Commission.
The government is also reviewing the federal building code for federally funded projects and considering changes to combat continuing “lawlessness” in the industry.