Jobs and Industrial Relations Minister Kelly O’Dwyer said the government accepted in principle all 22 recommendations.
“The Coalition government has no tolerance for those who repeatedly and deliberately underpay workers, whether they are an Australian or a worker on a visa. For the very first time we will introduce criminal sanctions for the most serious and egregious forms of deliberate exploitation of workers,” she said.
There was much publicity concerning 7-Eleven franchisees, but demonstrably the problem was more widespread.
Report of the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce released on Thursday
The inquiry was sparked by a spate of underpayment scandals exposed by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age including at well known companies such as 7-Eleven, Domino’s Pizza, Pizza Hutt, United Petroleum, Appco, Caltex and Retail Food Group.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has already pledged to become the first state to criminalise wage fraud.
Ms O’Dwyer said the government recently boosted funding for the workplace regulator, the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO).
Professor Allan Fels, who spearheaded the migrant taskforce and co-wrote the report with Professor David Cousins, the deputy chair of the taskforce, said wage fraud was widespread and had become more entrenched over time.
He said the implementation of all 22 recommendations would make a significant difference to worker exploitation.
“Wage theft has been getting out of hand,” he said.
He said it was worse than consumer exploitation and in the more egregious cases needed the full force of the law, including prison sentences.
“Wage exploitation of temporary migrants offends our national values of fairness,” he says in the report.
“It harms not only the employees involved, but also the businesses which do the right thing. It has potential to undermine our national reputation as a place for international students to undertake their studies and may discourage working holiday makers from filling essential gaps in the agricultural workforce.
“This problem has persisted for too long and it needs concerted action to overcome it.”
He said the Fair Work Ombudsman, was not well known or understood, was confusingly styled as an ombudsman and needed to be an enforcement agency.
“We are of the view, given the scale and entrenched nature of the problem, that there needs to be a much stronger enforcement response than has been evident to date,” the report says.
Professor Fels had been appointed to oversee the panel but had been sacked by 7-Eleven.
His taskforce noted it had issues examining 7-Eleven’s underpayment problems due to a lack of resources and an inability to assess the methodology for wage repayment adopted by 7-Eleven after it dismissed Professor Fels.
The report said 7-Eleven has paid workers $160 million in backpay but “the taskforce does not have sufficient information to determine how close it comes to fully remediating all affected employees for their underpayments”‘
Professor Fels recommended a review of the ombudsman to ensure it had the resources, tools and culture to combat the wage underpayment problem.
It recommended the federal government commission a review of the small claims process in the Fair Work Act to make it easier for migrant workers to get wage redress.
“The experience of the 7-Eleven wage remediation program provides numerous lessons for businesses and governments in what can and should be done in this area. We consider the regulator could make greater use of compliance notices in seeking to obtain redress for underpayments,” he said.
Adele Ferguson comments on companies, markets and the economy.