The passing of laws in Victoria on Tuesday night, which make the stealing of wages from workers a criminal offense, is a milestone. Victoria is the first Australian state or territory to do this.
Guilty employers dishonestly withhold wages, superannuation, or other employee entitlements, could face fines up to $198.64 for individuals, $991,320 for companies, and be sentenced for up to 10 years jail. Some restrictions will be put on creative accountancy.
The laws will come into effect next year.
Under the new laws, a Wage Inspectorate of Victoria will be established. Its function will be to investigate breeches and prosecute.
Unions have been campaigning for this for years. Although this masrks significant progress, the quest to put an end to the stealing of wages has not yet come to an end. A law is one thing. Its application another.
The track record shows that in the long run, a law and the body to enforce it, can easily be changed or abolished by a change of government or circumstances.
Australia needs a labour law, which includes the protection of entitlements, written into the nation’s constitution. This is a battle still to be won.
Change must come into the workplace, where workers are often vulnerable to pressure to forego entitlements. This is especially true with insecure work, where not accepting the employer’s terms, could mean the loss of work.
If workers have the authority to stop wage theft, before it gets to the courts, it will do more than anything else to put a stop to it.
To make it work, there must be union presence in the workplace. Real workplace union committees must be operating well to ensure the employer does the right thing.
The right to belong to a union, the right of workers to have their union organisation inside the workplace, and compulsion of the employer to sit at the table, should also form part of any Australian labour law.
Whatever rights exist on paper amount to little, unless they are able to be enforced. Wage theft is a case in point. It has always been illegal in Australia to steal wages. But this has seldom been enforced, and in the few times that they are, the penalties have amounted to a slap on the wrist.
Union growth is the key to making a big change. Everyone should join their union,m and they are much more than offices and officials. Their heart is where the members work together, when they believe in their strength, know their rights, and have the will to enforce them.
Although the campaign to end wage theft still has some way to go, this does not diminish the importance of what the Daniel Andrews government has brought to Victoria. It is an important step along the way to justice.