By Joe Montero
Australia has been crying out for years for something to be done to put an end to blatant exploitation of workers by greedy employers. One of the biggest abuses had been the rise in the use of labour hire intermediaries to pay lower wages than would otherwise be entitled. There is the use of insecure work and the gig economy. Don’t forget sham subcontracting and the fact that women are still often paid less than men.
Wage theft has been driven further in conditions where businesses are making it harder to secure a profit by other means. This is no excuse, particularly for the top end, which is having little difficulty boosting its bottom line and paying generous dividends to shareholders.
No wonder Australians have been developing a distrust of the corporate world and the economy. The most recent Morgan poll on the yearly distrust trend found that this distrust is now falling at a faster rate than ever. This is important. The majority feel that big business isn’t socially responsible enough, and there can be little doubt that wage theft is one of the reasons.
Retired CEO of Qantas Alan Joyce has become the latest poster boy for bad behaviour at the top end. His walking off with a big $10 million bag of loot and the $2.5 billion profit for the last financial year was built on the back of getting rid of jobs, underpaying, and receiving generous handouts from government. Joyce is currently the most hated man in Australia.
At least the federal government is now talking about closing a legal loophole that is allowing employers to use labour hire to cut wages. A new proposed law to be introduced into parliament will enforce pay labour hire workers the same wage as other workers, for businesses with more than 15 employees. Under this, Fair Work Australia will be given the power to criminalise transgressions, impose higher fines, and even jail time for the worst offenders.
This is long overdue, and it will make some difference. Projections suggest that up to 67,000 workers could benefit. But it will not put an end to wage theft on its own. This can’t happen without bringing in greater job security. The lack of this is what pushes to accept less than they are entitled to. To increase job security the use of labour hire must stop, except for in exceptional cases where a particular skill is not available otherwise.
Judgements by the Fair Work Commission will not be straight forward since it is obliged to take other factors into consideration. Matters like the said state of the economy and pressure from employers. There is the ideological bent of the government of the day, and the inbuilt bias towards the primacy of the market and business.
These limitations don’t mean that a partial improvement shouldn’t be accepted. It should, especially if it can be used to draw attention on other of wage theft and working conditions. This means working towards a labour law that guarantees a set of basic rights for all workers in medium and large enterprises, which should ultimately be voted on by referendum to be included in the Australian Constitution.
Tied to basic rights like being paid the appropriate wage, the ending of discrimination., and job security being written down, it is vital that a labour law guarantees the right of workers to belong to and be represented by a union, and that the union has right of access to the workplace. This is what will ensure that a labour law is being complied with.
Australia is still a long way from achieving this goal. The first step is to rase the proposal. Big employer organisation and the neoliberal crowd will preach catastrophe, insisting that there will be destruction of investment and jobs, if such a thing was even thought about.
A decent labour law will provide certainty, which is a positive for business planning, and it will encourage investment to where it is most useful. Investment geared towards profit through wage theft isn’t the type of investment we should want. We should prefer investment that builds our collective wellbeing.