Australia

Employers could face jail for wage theft

Kelly O'Dwyer says job seekers will no longer have to attend regular appointments. Source: AAP

Industrial Relations Minister Kelly O'Dwyer has given in-principle agreement to the recommendations of the migrant workers' task force.

Bosses who underpay workers could face jail time under a Morrison government plan to target serious exploitation and wage fraud.

The coalition has given in-principle support to all 22 recommendations in the migrant workers' task force report released on Thursday.

The inquiry, led by former consumer watchdog chief Allan Fels, was sparked by revelations of wage underpayment across 7-Eleven and other prominent businesses.

"Wage exploitation of temporary migrants offends our national values of fairness," the report says.

"It harms not only the employees involved but also the businesses which do the right thing."

Industrial Relations Minister Kelly O'Dwyer said the government had agreed to introduce criminal sanctions for the first time.

"The exploitation of workers in Australian workplaces is not only illegal, it harms individuals, undercuts law-abiding employers and reflects poorly on Australia's international reputation," she said on Thursday.

"Only the most serious and egregious cases would be subject to criminal penalties, not employers that accidentally or inadvertently do the wrong thing."

But the plan faces opposition from big business, with the Australian Industry Group warning the new penalties could stifle investment.

AI chief executive Innes Willox said civil penalties for industrial law breaches were an effective deterrent after being recently increased by up to 20 times.

"Implementing criminal penalties for wage underpayments would discourage investment, entrepreneurship and employment growth," he said.

Mr Willox said criminal cases would not deliver financial redress to workers but would put civil claims on hold until the court decided on the criminal matter.

"This means that underpaid workers could be waiting years for back-pay," he said.

The task force also recommends a national labour hire registration scheme for four high-risk industries: horticulture, meat processing, cleaning and security.

Mr Willox said that proposal would only work if state schemes in Queensland, Victoria and South Australia were abolished.

"A national licensing scheme would simply impose an even more unreasonable cost and onerous regulatory burden on labour hire businesses and their clients," he said.

Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O'Neil criticised the labour hire scheme for being a "light touch" placing the burden on workers to prove why bosses should stop exploiting them.

"Any serious attempt to address unscrupulous labour hire operators must ensure that labour hire companies cannot be used to cut wages in any sector of any person working in Australia," she said.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch