The National Retailers Association has blamed wage theft on workers, arguing that it happens because workers don’t know their rights.
In its submission to the wage theft inquiry currently being held in Queensland, the NRA said the problem will never be eradicated because “there will always be a business operator with insufficient understanding, or insufficient scruples, for this to occur.”
Like many employer groups, the NRA maintains that existing laws do not need to be strengthened.
“In NRA’s view the exploitation of workers in any industry is not a failure of the legislation, but a failure of the wider system to educate workers in their rights under the legislation,” the submission said.
Industrial advocate Miles Heffernan from Industrial Relations Claims slammed any suggestion that workers are to blame for wage theft.
“According to the Retailer’s Association, wage theft is all of a sudden the fault of the worker – for not understanding their rights – give me a break! Wage theft is the result of greedy thieving or incompetent employers – full stop,” he said.
“Wages are paid by employers, not by their workers, so if they are not correct, that is the responsibility of the employer.
“And as for the NRA’s suggestion that existing laws are already tough enough – if that was true, then why is wage theft currently so rampant in this country?
“It’s my guess that many of their members are the ones who are doing it.”
Other industry groups have argued to the inquiry that underpayments were not necessarily theft.
The Housing Industry Association said the concept of wage theft “has been greatly exaggerated by implying that all underpayment of wages is theft”.
“The complexity of the current workplace relations framework and in particular the … awards applicable to the residential building industry are a major contributor to underpayment that in no way should be construed as theft.”
The Australian Industry Group said criminalising underpayments “would represent a major unnecessary and unwarranted change to the industrial relations system”.
“The term ‘wage theft’ is inappropriate,” the AIG submission says.
“It risks inappropriately branding employers who mistakenly underpay their employees as criminals.”
Mr Heffernan said employers who steal wages are thieves, and should be treated as such by the criminal justice system.
He told the inquiry there was no excuse for wage theft.
“You have heard from restauranteurs and child-care centres. These people have to understand child safety and the complications of food hygiene and cross-contamination, yet they cannot understand the basic financial components of how to employ their staff. It is nonsense; it is not that complicated,” Mr Heffernan told the committee.
“The Fair Work Act came in in 2009, and award transitional provisions existed over five years from 2010. Perhaps up until 2015, there may have been an argument that awards converting from a state environment to a federal might have been tricky, but it is 2018.”
The inquiry is due to make its recommendations to the Queensland government in November.
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