Second Reading-WAGE THEFT BILL 2020

Mr FREGON (Mount Waverley) (12:52): I rise with delight to speak on the Wage Theft Bill 2020. There are a number of reforms which I have been looking forward to seeing passed in this house since I was elected, and this bill is definitely one of them. As I will explain, this bill increases fairness and equity in regards to remuneration across our labour market, but I will add to that. As the member for Frankston alluded to as well, this bill will also have the effect of ensuring fairness for our businesses, especially our small businesses, and I will come back to that point later.


Firstly, I want to thank the Attorney-General for her dedicated work in producing this bill, and those thanks extend to the Treasurer in his role as Minister for Industrial Relations. I also want to thank the many people in their offices and other stakeholders who have been crucial to getting us here today. No reform is made solely by one minister and, as formidable as they may be, it takes many hours of dedication from teams of people. Those people take a wage for their efforts, like the rest of us, and I hope they take some pride over their efforts contributing to the fairness in our labour market that this bill creates.


More important are the voices from those that have experienced the theft of their own wages. My good friend and usual neighbour sitting here on the backbench, the member for Ringwood, who made a very good contribution earlier, led some consultation sessions last year with unions, businesses groups, superannuation groups but most importantly with wage theft victims themselves. Their stories are the drivers of this reform; their stories are what make this bill possible, and many, many people will be better off from them relaying those stories. So I thank them for sharing their experience. I am sure it was difficult, and I hope they feel that it has been worth it.


I want to just mention something that the member for Frankston also said about one of the arguments from the opposition about the federal legislation that may or may not come in the future. I have a feeling that, like our national energy policy, we could probably put this bill on the back of a snail, we could send it off to Canberra, we could wait for it to come back and we still would not see either a national energy policy or a wage theft bill from our feds.


With that said, let us get back to some of the aspects of this bill. This bill delivers on the government’s commitment to make employers accountable for deliberately underpaying workers, and this of course happens much too often. There are laws in place that make this practice illegal—and it is worth pointing out that this bill does not change current obligations of employers—but unfortunately all too often some employers disregard these laws. This bill introduces the following offences: a new theft offence for employee entitlements and new record-keeping offences for employee entitlements, including failing to keep employee records and falsifying employee entitlement records.


This bill also establishes the Wage Inspectorate Victoria, which will have appropriate powers to both investigate and prosecute officers. This is important because in many cases of wage theft the people who are experiencing that theft do not have the knowledge or the power to go and seek any recompense or know how to seek recompense. There is a power imbalance here that having the wage inspectorate will seek to remedy.


Over the last few years alone we have seen too many examples of wage theft, some more visible in the media than others. We have also seen in the last 12 months some very large organisations self-auditing their payroll systems. Unsurprisingly, they have found errors and will need to fix those if they have not already. This action of due diligence on their behalf is important, because this bill does not seek to penalise employers for honest mistakes. These offences will be relevant to employers who deliberately underpay employees or deliberately classify employees incorrectly under an award and—and this one is hard to believe—those employers who require employees to pay money back in cash after receiving wages.


You would think that activities like falsifying records or failing to keep records to conceal theft would already be a crime. This bill lets dodgy employers know that this activity must stop. The Fair Work Act 2009 currently provides a civil framework to enforce employer obligations, but it does not criminalise wage theft. That is why this bill is necessary to do just that. It will be clear to all that the theft of wages is just like any other theft.


A clear benefit from this bill is that employees can expect to be paid correctly, but as I mentioned earlier, there is another benefit for business from this bill. There are a great many businesses—I would say a majority—that do the right thing. They value their employees and pay at or above the award. When these businesses are trying to compete with dodgy businesses who shirk their responsibilities, then most of our well-natured businesses, our good businesses, are at a disadvantage. With this bill we are levelling that playing field. Consider this example: you have got a cafe that is starting up in a local street. This cafe pays its workers by the award. It pays super, holiday loadings, casual bonuses—everything it is meant to do. But if another cafe down the road does not, then they are able to sell their wares cheaper. They are able to spend more money on any number of advantages that might promote their businesses. Our upstanding business owner is at a disadvantage through no fault of his own. Now, our dodgy business is already going against the law, and if caught or if taken to Fair Work, then they would probably have to pay recompense to their employees. But in the meantime they have had months or years of advantage over the other cafe.


Now, small business is hard, and I get that as much as anyone. Most businesses fail, if they are going to, in the first couple of years. So if you come into business—as I think most of us do—to do the right thing and there are others who do not, it is even more hard. We go into business for many reasons—to prove ourselves, to make a living, to live life on our own terms, to compete with others or to do what we love—and I put it here that we do not go into business to underpay people or steal their wages. But some do this very thing, and as a result every other business owner is worse off. We are all less by the unlawful behaviour of a few, and this bill levels the playing field. To those out there doing the wrong thing, I say to you: ‘Sort yourselves out or you will be found out’. If that happens—well, to quote Tex Perkins once again in this house, ‘Better get a lawyer, son; you better get a real good one’.


It is also worth pointing out that this bill is good for jobs in general. The employees that will benefit most from this bill are usually some of the lowest paid in our society. These people may not earn as much as others, but on average they spend a greater percentage of their earnings than those at the other end of the spectrum. I would argue that most of the extra—but correct, I must add—earnings that will go to these workers as a result of this bill will get spent, and this in turn will encourage economic growth. I commend the bill to the house.


Sitting suspended 1.00 pm until 2.00 pm.


Business interrupted under sessional orders.