New laws will enable workers to pursue employers through the courts for ‘wage theft’ and allow union officials to represent them.
The legislation introduced on Thursday (22 August) to the Legislative Assembly will also make businesses criminally responsible when they breach health and safety rules.
The Courts (Fair Work and Work Safety) Bill 2019 will amend existing Territory Courts legislation so workers can go to the Magistrates Court to resolve workplace disputes such as under-payment of wages in a way that is easy, quick, and inexpensive, Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay told the Assembly.
The Bill ensures that the Industrial Court, which sits in the ACT Magistrates Court, has jurisdiction to hear fair work matters.
It also provides for compulsory mediation so disputes over small claims can be resolved in a non-adversarial way and relieve pressure on the court system.
“The compulsory mediation provisions within the Bill are designed to assist parties to fair work matters to resolve their disputes early and with the minimum of legal form and technicality,” Mr Ramsay said.
The Bill removes monetary limits so claims under $25,000 can be heard in the Magistrates Court and fair work matters that might arise in the ACT Administrative and Civil Tribunal, which cannot hear them, can be referred to the Magistrates Court.
In health and safety matters, the Bill ensures that corporations can be committed to the Supreme Court for trial on indictment, just like individuals, and their assets can be seized under the ACT’s confiscation of criminal assets
legislation when businesses benefit from criminal breaches of work safety laws.
Mr Ramsay said the Bill promoted consistency in approach with the federal fair work scheme, and enabled fair work matters to be dealt with alongside other employment-related litigation in the Industrial Court.
“The timely, inexpensive and informal resolution of fair work matters was critical for Canberrans who simply cannot afford to be under paid, out of a job or subjected to unfair treatment at work,” Mr Ramsay said.
“This Bill enhances our justice system to help make sure that Canberrans can get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”
UnionsACT, which recently called for a separate court to deal with wage theft, said the Bill restored workers’ rights to access quick, simple and inexpensive justice in the specialised Industrial Magistrates Court.
Secretary of UnionsACT, Alex White said working people in the ACT were facing a wage-theft crisis, with more than 40 per cent of businesses deciding to break one or more of the Fair Work Act requirements.
“The enormous expense and lengthy timeframes for workers to access justice have been abused by dodgy bosses to get away with stealing from their employees,” he said.
“Working people need a simpler, fairer and less expensive system that allows workers and their representatives to access justice and hold to account unscrupulous bosses who steal wages.
“It is very positive that the ACT Labor Government has introduced these reforms.
“Our hope is that these proposed laws are given strong and unanimous support by all members of the Assembly.”