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The Coalition government is drafting laws to criminalise wage theft

Left: Scott Morrison (left) and Christian Porter (right) during parliamentary question time; Right: George Calombaris.

The Coalition government is putting the wheels in motion to make worker exploitation and underpayment a crime that could see dodgy bosses face jail.

During parliamentary question time on Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government was in the process of drafting legislation to make it a criminal offence to take advantage of employees.

“Right now, the Attorney-General is drafting laws to deal with criminalising worker exploitation,” he said as reported in SMH.

The move also aims to sidestep blows from Labor and the unions who are accusing the Coalition for being unwilling to act on law-breaking employers.

Criminal sanctions would send "a strong and unambiguous message to those employers who think they can get away with the exploitation of vulnerable employees,” said industrial relations minister Christian Porter.

The new measures would "protect vulnerable workers and ensure law-abiding Australian employers are not undercut by unscrupulous competitors,” the SMH reported, and would only criminalise underpayment that is “clear, deliberate and systemic”.

Shadow industrial relations minister Tony Burke said strong penalties ought to apply to the worst offenders of underpayment.

“If you have something that is knowingly, deliberately underpaying people, then I don't see how it should be any different from the worker taking money from the till,” said Burke.

Speaking to ABC Radio National on Wednesday, Porter described long-time MasterChef judge and celebrity chef George Calombaris’ $200,000 fine for underpaying staff $7.8 million as “light”.

"We will review penalties and I'm open-minded to submissions that there should be further penalties there, inclusive of potentially criminal penalties reserved for repetitious breaches."

Calombaris, alongside fellow MasterChef judges Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan, reportedly walked away from discussions with Network Ten on Tuesday after the network refused to raise their salaries by 40 per cent.

Long string of wage theft

More and more instances of systemic underpayment have emerged to light in the last few months.

While George Calombaris’ $7.8 million wage theft has been the most high-profile case of late, other major brands and personalities have been exposed for underpaying or exploiting their staff, such as Rockpool Bar & Grill chief Neil Perry, jewellery retailer Michael HillSydney’s Shangri-La Hotel, and Merivale.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has also been cracking down on employers taking advantage of visa holders or migrant workers, with small business owners fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for doing the wrong thing.

Fair Work inspectors and ATO officers have been visiting businesses to ensure employers are meeting their workplace law obligations and assisting with tax matters.

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