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Nearly 1 in 4 Queensland workers aren't getting the pay they're entitled to. Their bosses could face up to 10 years jail time under proposed wage theft laws.

Sharon Masige
  • The Queensland Government is bringing in new legislation to make wage theft a crime.
  • Under the amendments to the Queensland Criminal Code, employers caught committing wage theft could face 10 years in prison for stealing or 14 years for fraud.
  • It comes after a string of companies have been caught underpaying staff such as Woolworths, Coles and Target.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

The Queensland government will introduce legislation to make wage theft a crime in the state.

Queensland industrial relations minister Grace Grace said in a statement employers who commit wage theft in future could face a maximum of 10 years for stealing or 14 years for fraud.

Amendments to the Queensland Criminal Code will be brought in to address wage theft. It comes after a Queensland Parliamentary inquiry which found nearly one in four Queensland workers aren't getting the pay they are entitled to.

“Wage theft is taking around $1.2 billion out of workers’ wages each year and more than $1 billion from workers’ superannuation," Grace said. “Enough is enough.”

Grace explained that the current Criminal Code is tough on workers who are caught stealing money but there is no offence for bosses who intentionally steal from their employees or defraud them.

“These amendments will rectify that inequity and send a strong message to employers that wage theft is not acceptable - it is a crime," she said.

Grace added that while the Commonwealth Government is mainly responsible for private company wages and conditions, the Federal government has been "sitting on their hands on this issue since 2013".

“In the absence of any Commonwealth leadership, we are determined to do all we can at a state level to stamp out wage theft,” she said.

The state government is also rolling out a new streamlined process to support Queenslanders who have been underpaid.

“For workers, their first and main priority is to get back what is owed to them,” Queensland Attorney-General and Minister for Justice Yvette D’Ath said in a statement.

“But almost half of workers who experience wage theft don’t try to recover the monies owed to them because the process is complex and time-consuming."

Many companies have been caught underpaying staff in recent months

Over the past few months we've seen several companies admitting to underpaying staff. Target's parent company Wesfarmers revealed the clothing retailer underpaid staff by $9 million. It came after Coles discovered it underpaid staff by $20 million and Woolies found it owed workers as much as $300 million.

In addition to these major retailers, a string of celebrity chef restaurants have been caught in underpayment scandals. These include George Calombaris' Made restaurants, the Neil Perry-fronted Rockpool Dining Group and Adriano Zumbo's pastry shops.

Unions NSW calls for audits of businesses to fight wage theft

Unions NSW has called for unions and employer groups to audit businesses over underpayment to combat wage theft, the Australian Financial Review reported.

Unions NSW made a submission to a Senate Inquiry that looks at whether the federal government should shift funding from the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) to top industrial organisations. Unions NSW wants these organisations to investigate wage theft as the Ombudsman doesn't have the resources to do it by itself.

Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey told the Australian Financial Review he understood that FWO had roughly 250 inspectors doing investigations. That equalled one inspector for around every 51,000 employees. A spokeswoman from FWO also told AFR the number was even lower than that, at 177.

"In our experience, the primary cause of wage theft is the fact that dodgy employers have very little chance of getting caught," Morey said.

"A stronger focus on compliance is desperately needed, and both unions and employer groups can be part of the solution.

The Australian government considered tougher laws on wage theft

In February, the Australian Attorney-General’s Department released discussion papers highlighting the need for new penalties to fight wage theft.

Currently, individual employers found guilty of criminal offences face around $1 million in fines or three times the underpayment. Companies, however, are faced with $9.45 million, 10% annual turn over, or three times the violation.

Under the new proposals, companies could face five to ten years of imprisonment. And those who exploit migrants could face harsher penalties like being publicly shamed and required to “display a notice admitting to having underpaid their employees”.