Australia

Bosses who underpay workers could be 'named and shamed' as Coles face $20 million hit

Attorney-General Christian Porter discusses stronger penalties for bosses who underpay workers. Source: AAP

A Federal Government discussion paper will suggest barring bosses who have underpaid workers from being directors.

Attorney-General Christian Porter has sent a warning to corporate Australia after Coles became the latest major company embroiled in an underpayment scandal.

The supermarket giant is expected to be fined $20 million for underpaying managers at its supermarkets and liquor division over the past six years.

The Coles scandal erupted on the same day Mr Porter, who is also industrial relations minister, released a discussion paper looking at options to tackle worker underpayments.

Coles
Coles found underpaying workers

The paper raises the prospect of adverse publicity orders, which could require an employer to display a notice admitting to underpaying workers.

Company directors could be disqualified from holding office and Mr Porter said businesses which fail to prevent wage theft may be banned from hiring migrant workers.

"Corporate Australia surely now has got the message that they need to get their house in order," he said.

Attorney-General Christian Porter has described the religious freedom laws as a balancing act of compromise.
Attorney-General Christian Porter
AAP

"If they haven't got that message then they're going to be absolutely and utterly compelled to in the future by the most vigorous, robust and complete set of laws around wage underpayment that Australia's ever seen."

Mr Porter emphasised penalties for companies, like Coles and Woolworths, would be inescapable under the new, stricter regime.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions has however blamed the government's attack on unions for wage theft.

The ACTU and former New South Wales senator Doug Cameron both argue officials are now less able to inspect pay records and conduct compliance checks.

It's a sentiment shared by Labor leader Anthony Albanese, who wants the Coalition to do more to stop the growing number of cases of wage theft in Australia. 

"They're prepared to defend the sort of behaviour that we have seen become all too prevalent," he said.

"They have very little to say about this exploitation, which is what it is."

Federal Opposition leader Anthony Albanese took aim at the Nationals leadership.
Federal Opposition leader Anthony Albanese.
AAP

The Morrison government is also due to introduce legislation in coming weeks to criminalise the most serious forms of worker exploitation with significant jail terms and fines.

Mr Porter said while the vast majority of underpayments are not deliberate, it remains a serious issue as it demonstrates negligence and an inability to comply with workplace law.

"But that doesn't make it any less terrible, particularly for the people who are being underpaid," he said.

Unpaid wages
Getty Images

The new measures stem from the Migrant Worker Taskforce, a group which was created in 2016, after it was revealed multiple 7-Eleven shops had underpaid workers.

The government is also considering streamlining the courts claims process in order to encourage greater participation at a lower costs, as well as creating a formal role for the Fair Work Commission to help mediate disputes between employers and employees.

Wage scandals have engulfed the hospitality and retail sectors in recent years, with high-profile cases including celebrity chef George Calombaris and Woolworths making headlines.

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