A word about wage theft

Recent months have seen an unprecedented level of exposure of dramatic underpayments by what had previously thought to be respectable institutions - Woolworth’s had admitted it underpaid about 5700 staff up to $300 million and this followed Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank, Bunnings and the empires of the famous chefs Neil Perry and George Colombaris.

The immediate response by those who did know better was that the award system was too complex for major corporations who, at the same time, were quite capable of handling millions of customers and turnover of billions of dollars. This included the head of the Business Council of Australia who described this theft as “inadvertent payroll mistakes” because the industrial relations system was “too complex”, with “122 awards, multiple agreements, multiple clauses”. This was supported by the head of the Australian Retailers Association ripping into the “lack of flexibility in awards when interpreted literally”.

This is all a hoax. A cover up. How can it be that there are never “inadvertent payroll mistakes” of this magnitude where employees are overpaid?

In local government we see less dramatic examples regularly. Councils asserting that there is some kind of loading on a rate of pay for forfeiting overtime, or working reasonable additional hours but then they can’t justify it by demonstrating how much it is, or how it sits properly on a salary system rate of pay. Only this week, in fact.

In a great article in The Conversation on 11 November, Professor of Workplace Law at RMIT University Anthony Forsyth defended the system as not as complex as employers claim and that businesses have made things more complex for themselves by trying to annualise salary arrangements to incorporate overtime, penalty rates and a variety of loadings.

And even though the practice is nowhere near as prevalent in local government, employees are entitled to be sceptical when the boss comes along offering a rate of pay said to include a market component, something in lieu of overtime, something for forfeiting RDOs etc.

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