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Issue #1909      March 30, 2020

ANTI-WAGE THEFT, PRO-HONEST MISTAKES

On 18th March 2020, Minister for Workplace Safety, Jill Hennessy, released a media statement saying that the Victorian government were going to be implementing anti-wage theft laws this year.

The Wage Theft Bill will penalise individuals committing wage theft up to $198,264 and companies up to $991,320. Employers could also face up to ten years in jail. Victorian Labor claim that these measures will hold employers accountable for “dishonest record-keeping practices.” The investigation into wage theft will be conducted by the “Wage Inspectorate of Victoria,” which will be established under the bill with “powers to investigate and prosecute wage theft offences.”

The announcement was seen as a win for unions in Victoria – especially for Hospo Voice who has been campaigning tirelessly over the past few years against wage theft. We should commend the efforts of unions for bringing wage theft back into the consciousness of workers, but we should remain critical of any reformist laws. People are quick to jump at the news and see it as a levelling of the playing field. However, the contradictions of the bourgeois, the capitalist class conceding over wage theft do not pass by communists. The playing field is far from level.

Further, in the media release, it is stated that: “Employers who make honest mistakes or who exercise due diligence in paying wages and employee entitlements will not be guilty of wage theft offences under these laws.” This is an interesting addition to wage theft laws because it is the perfect loophole for big business, and powerful employers to manoeuvre their way out of accountability. The excuse that companies only “accidentally” underpay staff is clichéd at this point, but we never hear of these companies “accidentally” overpaying staff.

Rob Scott, the chief executive of Wesfarmers, the company that owns Target which is guilty of $9 million in wage theft, is quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, saying, “I’m not sure more punitive penalties are necessarily going to change behaviour at all” and then goes on to blame the “incredible complexity” of paying staff.

The hypocrisy is mind-boggling. Employers get wriggle room when they commit the crime of stealing millions from thousands of workers. At the same time, unprotected industrial action laws have led to the CFMEU paying millions upon millions in fines over the past few years. If capitalists like Rob Scott really think that increasing punitive measures is pointless, then maybe they should reconsider the Ensuring Integrity Bill!

The Liberal Party’s page on the Ensuring Integrity Bill says that they were forced to introduce harsher laws to crack down on CFMEU because they have “sadly [...] shown no signs of slowing down, treating these penalties as the cost of doing business.” Why has CFMEU not slowed down on breaking anti-union laws? Because it protects the interest of its workers. Will employers respect anti-wage theft laws? No, because they protect the interests of capitalists, and wage theft will always be an interest of the capitalist class.

It will be interesting to see which employer will be the guinea pig for these new laws (if they are ever actually acted on) and how effective they are. As communists, we know that even if the laws are put to good use, it won’t be long until employers begin lobbying the government for more and more loopholes until anti-wage theft laws are no more than a façade.

Next article – FREEZE ON RENT AND MORTGAGES

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