Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker has promised a stronger approach to enforcement against businesses that commit wage theft, but the regulator will still give priority to vulnerable groups like overseas workers instead of Australian nationals.
The stronger focus on enforcement was welcomed by worker advocate Miles Heffernan from Industrial Relations Claims, who has previously accused the Fair Work Ombudsman of “a foot massage department” because of its lack of enforcement activity, and for launching fewer than 40 court actions in a 12 month period with a budget of over $111 million.
“For far too long we have seen the regulator responsible for enforcing workplace laws, simply not doing much to enforce workplace laws.
“Instead it put too many of its resources into education, and it let too many dodgy bosses get away with ripping off their employees.
“Even worse, when workers called them for help, they were simply ignored, or told to sort the problem out themselves.
“The fact that we now see wage theft rife in industries like fast food, hospitality, retail, hair and beauty and fruit and vegetable picking is evidence that the regulator has failed spectacularly in its primary role – to enforce workplace laws.
“For years, the so-called workplace watchdog has been nothing more than a pathetic pussy cat, so if Ms Parker can turn things around and haul more unscrupulous employers before the courts, and see them slapped with enormous penalties, then that will be great news and a step in the right direction,” Mr Heffernan said.
Strong message of deterrence
Ms Parker made the announcement of the future priorities of her agency at the recent National Policy Influence Reform Conference in Canberra.
“While it can be difficult as a regulator to find the right balance between using enforcement tools and getting a timely outcome, I am conscious that Parliament has given us increased powers and more resources, so it’s on us to send a strong message of deterrence to would-be law breakers,” she said.
“The Prime Minister and the new Minister for Industrial Relations have also said that a priority for the Government is on law enforcement and adherence with Australia’s industrial relations laws.”
Industries to be targeted
The industries to be targeted in the coming year by the agency are those which are notorious for wage theft and exploitation of workers.
They will include:
- Fast food, restaurants and cafes
- Horticulture and the harvest trail
The Fair Work Ombudsman will also focus on sham contracting and supply chain risks.
Aussie workers still a low priority
Despite public perceptions that the Ombudsman helps every exploited worker who calls for assistance, that is simply not the case.
Ms Parker confirmed the regulator will continue to give priority to vulnerable workers – so that means overseas and migrant workers will continue to jump to the front of the queue ahead of Australian nationals.
As IR Claims revealed in its submission to the Queensland wage theft inquiry, migrant workers make up just 6 percent of the workforce, but 63 percent of court cases initiated by the Ombudsman, according to its latest annual report.
In addition, Ms Parker is repeatedly quoted in media releases making the exact same statement:
“We prioritise any requests for assistance from migrant workers, who can be particularly vulnerable due to language or cultural barriers and may not be aware of their workplace rights.”
Don’t think the Ombudsman is going to help you
In her address to the National Policy Influence Reform Conference, Ms Parker confirmed that vulnerable workers will continue to be a priority for the agency, as will matters that are of “significant public interest”.
“Don’t think for one second that if you are being ripped off by your boss that the Fair Work Ombudsman is going to help you,” Mr Heffernan said.
“It is our experience that unless you are a migrant worker, or unless your case has attracted media attention – that’s what they mean by “significant public interest” – then you will be either ignored, placed at the back of the queue, or told to try and sort the matter out yourself.”
IR Claims once again for called for wage theft to be made a criminal offence, like all other forms of theft.
“In addition to criminal penalties, we believe the Fair Work Ombudsman should receive a huge boost in funding from the federal government so it can help more people, and also put more inspectors on the ground to catch greedy bosses who steal from their employees,” Mr Heffernan said.
“Unfortunately for workers, the Coalition government has shown little if any interest in tackling wage theft seriously, so I hold little hope we will see criminal sanctions, but I hope they can find some more dollars in the budget for Ms Parker and the important job she has.”
Name and shame dodgy employers
Ms Parker says moving forward, she will have no hesitation to ‘name and shame’ dodgy employers.
“We will use our new powers and publicly name employers who break the law to get the message out that it is not acceptable to underpay workers or deprive them of their entitlements. Employers who do this will get caught,” Ms Parker said.
Ms Parker also flagged a bigger role for compliance notices to address underpayments, breaches of awards and the National Employment Standards.
Compliance notices are an official notice to fix any breaches of workplace laws, and are usually issued by the Ombudsman before any court action is taken.
“I wish Ms Parker and her agency all the best for the coming year, and we look forward to seeing the change in focus to more enforcement and less education, so that unscrupulous employers can be brought to justice, and workers are paid what they are legally entitled to be paid,” Mr Heffernan said.