Employees can now take their wage theft claims to the ACT Magistrates Court instead of having their cases dragged out at the Fair Work Commission after new laws were passed in the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday (24 September).
The Courts (Fair Work and Work Safety) Bill 2019 will now allow ACT magistrates to hear small wage-theft claims under $25,000 after the monetary limit was removed.
Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay said the bill ensures that the Industrial Court, which sits in the ACT Magistrates Court, has the jurisdiction to hear fair work matters alongside other employment-related litigation.
The new laws also make businesses criminally responsible when they breach health and safety rules.
Mr Ramsay said the bill allows employees to go to the ACT Magistrates Court to resolve workplace disputes in a way that is easy, quick and inexpensive.
“Improving access to justice in the ACT’s legal system has been an absolute priority for the government and this suite of reforms will ensure vulnerable people are able to better navigate the justice system,” Mr Ramsay said.
“Changes to fair work legislation demonstrate the Government’s commitment to combating wage theft and improving access to justice by providing a simple, accessible and efficient process for parties to resolve fair work matters in the ACT.”
Under the amended bill, industrial association officials can represent their members in small claim matters before the court, helping those who don’t have the financial capability to pay for their own representation.
The bill also provides for compulsory mediation for all fair work matters so disputes over small claims can be resolved in a non-adversarial way and relieve pressure on the court system.
UnionsACT secretary Alex White said the existing system is time-consuming and expensive, which strongly favours employers, but said the new laws restore workers’ rights to access quick, simple and inexpensive justice.
Mr White said working people in the ACT are facing a “wage-theft crisis” after two Fair Work Ombudsman audits of businesses in Canberra found that over 40 per cent of businesses fail to comply with the Fair Work Act.
“The biggest contributing factor to the wage-theft crisis is that unscrupulous employers know that in the unlikely event they are caught, it will be many months – even years – before they must pay back the money they stole from their workers,” Mr White said.
“These new laws introduce a simpler, fairer and less expensive system that allows workers and their unions to hold to account unscrupulous bosses who steal wages.”
The ACT Government introduced a suite of legislative reforms this week, including establishing a drug and alcohol court, and creating a scheme to protect vulnerable witnesses under cross-examination.
Mr Ramsay introduced changes to the Evidence Act which will establish the legal framework for the use of intermediaries and ground rules hearings in the ACT, implementing key recommendations made by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The Assembly will also consider the passage of the ACT’s first Drug and Alcohol Court, as part of the ACT Government’s target to reduce recidivism by 25 per cent by 2025.