Advocates hail Victoria’s salary theft law which has now come into force
A registered nurse in Thailand, Anchalee Suwan came to Australia ten years ago to gain work experience in an English-speaking country.
She found herself undertaking studies in Melbourne as an international student while working several jobs to make ends meet, many of which are underpaid.
Over 10 years, she estimates that she has been underpaid $ 100,000 in lost wages and pension rights.
“I was younger – 26 – and at that time in your life when you have so much vitality,” she told SBS News.
Ms. Suwan ended up working six days, first as a cook’s helper, then in elderly care and community care after graduating. She supplemented her income by working as a singer and massage therapist.
“I didn’t know I had so many skills to survive. Whatever opportunity was presented to me, I just took it. When I got the babysitting job, I was working. from 6 to 9 to help people put on shoes, wash them, then I go to school.
“In the evening, I go to work as a cook’s helper [$50 per shift], sometimes I have a singing job from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday evening. I get paid $ 80 per shift. And then Monday at 7 in the morning, I have to start all over again. “
Instant noodles have become a staple meal.
“As a nurse, I know it’s really bad to live on instant noodles,” she said.
“But somehow we [my flatmate from Thailand and I] try to be creative on how to eat – add meat, add vegetables – to get nutrition. We’ve become addicted … but it’s the cheapest way. It’s cheaper than take-out coffee – $ 1 per pack. And it will save you money. “
She left Australia for Japan just before the pandemic and is building her life there with her partner and child.
She never recovered the lost wages and said it was difficult to talk about while she was in Australia.
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“I was so stressed. Being alone in a new country, trying to pay rent and go to school. I was in survival mode all the time.
“I didn’t know who to talk to. It seems all international students face the same problem. And we don’t know how to handle this. If we complain we lose the job, the employer will find another student for you. replace right away It’s not easy to find a job, you try to keep it.
A new law came into effect on July 1 in Victoria making it an offense for an employer to deliberately underpay employees.
Last year, in June, the state became the first jurisdiction in Australia to pass so-called salary theft laws in parliament.
These crimes are punishable by 10 years in prison for individuals. There are also hefty fines of nearly $ 200,000 ($ 198,264) for individuals, or nearly $ 1 million ($ 991,320) for companies that break the law.
The legislation also establishes a new independent statutory body, the Victoria Wage Inspectorate, to initiate criminal proceedings under Victorian law. Salary Theft Act 2020.
Queensland changed the definition of theft under its Criminal Code to make wage theft a criminal offense last year in September. Violations can carry a sentence of 10 years imprisonment.
Other Australian jurisdictions have used amendments to administrative law or industrial relations law to increase penalties for employers for wage theft, but the Victorian stand-alone bill goes the furthest by imposing criminal penalties and an enforcement regime.
“An insidious crime”
Victoria Industrial Relations Minister Tim Pallas said the laws target deliberate underpayments and do not target employers who make honest mistakes or exercise due diligence in paying wages and employee rights .
“Wage theft is an insidious crime that often benefits vulnerable employees who may be too afraid to speak up – these laws send a strong message that Victoria takes the exploitation of workers seriously and that wage theft is intolerable and will be punished. “
“While willful underpayment is an element of salary theft, forgery or failure to keep records to cover up underpayments is just as serious and also targeted by Victoria’s laws.”
Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Luke Hilakari said he welcomed the change.
“Look, I think this could be another Australian first. Australia has a great history – especially Victoria, in leading the way in labor reforms. We are the first place in the world to offer the eight hour day. “
“This is just another step in which we are leading the world, we say, ‘actually when someone goes to work they deserve to be paid for every hour they are for.’
Victoria’s Wage Inspectorate Director Robert Hortle said the agency would actively prosecute employers for wage theft under the new legal framework.
“This is a historic day for Victoria,” he said in a statement Thursday. “(The) Victoria Wage Inspectorate was created to protect vulnerable employees from exploitation and to hold employers to account if they steal wages.”
Ms Suwan said she was trying to put the past behind her, but said she hoped others wouldn’t have to go through what she did, especially now underpayment of wages is criminalized. in Victoria.
“I feel like a jerk. It was 10 years of my life in Australia. These employers – how can you do that to people?
“Some restaurateurs are from the same country as me. We should support each other. You didn’t expect that – they would lie to you, smile and use you like that.
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She urged others to speak up and know their rights in the workplace.
“There are a lot of people I imagine who are underpaid or not paid at all right now. I encourage them to speak up.”
Plans to create a federal criminal offense for wage theft with stiff civil penalties were ultimately unsuccessful under changes to the federal omnibus industrial relations bill revealed in December.
The bill at one point proposed up to four years in prison for the most serious cases of salary theft – and fines of up to $ 1.1 million for individuals and $ 5.5 million. dollars for business.
Last week in New South Wales, a Sydney couple were convicted of forced labor offenses involving a Filipino woman who was detained for a period of three years working almost six days a week without being paid as a nanny, maid and saleswoman.
The couple have both been sentenced to prison terms and will be forced to repay the woman $ 70,000.
Beginning July 1, most industry rewards dictating the minimum wage will be subject to a 2.5% wage hike, raising the minimum hourly adult wage for the first time to over $ 20 (20, $ 33 per hour).
A 2019 PwC report – titled “Australia Matters” – estimated that 13% of Australia’s workforce is underpaid and the economic cost to the nation is $ 1.35 billion per year.
Industry Super Australia said the amount of unpaid retirement pensions owed to almost 2.8 million Australians equals $ 5.9 billion.