Small Business Groups Hit Back At Wage Theft Law Plans

Published July 26, 2019 (last updated July 23, 2020) -

The Fair Work Commission’s president Justice Ian Ross has agreed with concerns raised by small business advocacy groups, such as Employsure, that the Australia’s workplace relations system is difficult to navigate.

“I do think we can do more to assist small business to meet their obligations and I agree with the proposition that most small business owners do try and do the right thing,” Ross told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Justice Ross last year launched a review of the nation’s wage system, added that the review would have finished reviewing a third of the awards by year’s end.

“I expect we will have completed a review of about a third of awards by the end of this year, and that should assist,” he said, adding that the language used in Australia’s 122 awards was “tortuous”.

Council of Small Business Organisations president Peter Strong, and Small Business Ombudsman Kate Carnell have both come out with concerns about the Morrison Government’s proposed wage theft law.

Strong said the Prime Minister must look at the “complexity” of the modern awards system if he is to introduce criminalisation of underpayments, while Carnell called on Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter to “simplify” the system.

“We need to make it easier for people to comply with the law,” Carnell said.

Since news of MADE Establishment’s $7.8 million underpayment and $200,000 contrition payment earlier in the week, there have been growing calls for wage theft to be formally criminalised.

Professor Allan Fels, who chaired the Migrant Workers Taskforce in the aftermatch of the 7-Eleven underpayment scandal, said that the ongoing, deliberate and systemic underpayment the taskforce wanted criminalised was too hard to do by accident.

“Most of the cases that are reported in the media are of massive underpayment; it is inconceivable these businesses don’t know about it,” Professor Fels said.

“I haven’t heard of too many cases of overpayment.”

Porter said his Government’s proposed wage theft laws would not target businesses “who make what is clearly an honest mistake and which is promptly corrected”.

“It’s clear to me that you do need to have more serious penalties reserved for the most serious types of offending,” he said.

“But where people repeat offend with underpayment; they do so knowingly and in very large amounts – obviously, to the extraordinary disadvantage of their workers, that should have a system where you have the reserved ability to have criminal offences.”

Employsure’s Senior Employment Relations Adviser Michael Wilkinson agrees with the notion of the award system’s complexity.

“There’s more than 122 Awards in the Australia workplace relations system. For some businesses, even small ones, they may have to comply with more than one award.

“It’s not the minimum wage or award rate that’s the most difficult part, but many employees struggle with the myriad entitlements, and varying rates throughout the time of week and time of day.

“Big companies with huge HR teams, like Qantas, still manage to not be 100% accurate. How can we reasonably expect [small and medium enterprises] to be?”

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