UnionsACT has called for a dedicated tribunal or court in the ACT to deal with an explosion of wage theft that is leaving many young workers out of pocket.
The call came at the recent launch of UnionsACT’s Young Workers Centre, an online resource that provides free, confidential information and support to young workers aged under 25 years.
Part of the service is a free information hotline, the Young Worker Advice Service, which is funded for the next three years by the ACT Government.
UnionsACT secretary Alex White said UnionsACT research had found that the prevalence of wage-theft had increased dramatically in recent times, with more than half of young workers reporting their wages were stolen in the last 12 months (up from 44 per cent last year).
But most young workers just quit once they realised they were being ripped off, having nowhere to go to recover relatively small amounts of money.
Mr White said court costs and legal fees were prohibitive and the under-resourced Fair Work Commission had long waiting times for any action. The Federal Magistrates and Federal Courts dealt in big wage theft cases of many thousands of dollars.
“Unless you are dealing with a $30,000 or $40,000 case, those fees could be more than the wage theft you’re dealing with,” Mr White said.
“What we want is a specialist wage theft tribunal or court that can deal with wage theft cases of any size, whether it’s $200 or $80,000.”
A typical case would be a young worker in the hospitality industry underpaid $5 or $6 an hour for 12 months that could add up to about a $1000, “which is a lot for a young person but not enough to justify hundreds of dollars in court fees and $3000-4000 in legal fees, even if you win”.
“When an employer knows that he can steal $1000 or a couple of thousand off 20 or 25 workers a year, it’s a lot of money for them but individually it’s hard for those workers to do anything about it,” Mr White said.
Mr White said more and more businesses were realising they could get away with it and make a calculated decision to steal wages.
Wage theft took many forms as well as underpayment, such as unpaid opening and closing ‘shoulder’ periods, unpaid trial shifts and internships, staff paying for their own uniforms and protective clothing and equipment, and unpaid superannuation.
Mr White said he expected the Government to support the idea of a new tribunal, given its record on securing jobs and cracking down on unsafe builders.
The Young Worker Centre and its advice service, based on successful Victorian and South Australian models, will provide free information to young workers from their very first job, including through colleges, TAFE
It will also run programs to equip them with the skills and knowledge they need to enforce their own workplace rights.
The ACT Government was approached for comment.