Daniel Andrews’ Wage Theft Bill, due for debate in Parliament this week, is not only an unnecessary duplication of existing Commonwealth Fair Work powers but it cuts across the Federal Government’s commitment to strengthen the wage underpayment or “wage theft” regime.
Victoria going it alone will create an additional layer of bureaucratic red tape and cost burden for Victorian businesses hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis at a time when many are struggling to survive and recover.
Victoria ceded responsibility for industrial relations matters to the Commonwealth under referral powers legislation in 1996 and it is clearly the role of the Federal Fair Work Ombudsman (not Victoria) to investigate and prosecute breaches of workplace laws, awards and agreements under the Fair Work Act 2009.
The Commonwealth, in a discussion paper last year, acknowledged that wage underpayment has been an issue and is committed to reform.
The Attorney-General Jill Hennessy and Treasurer Tim Pallas had even made a submission to the Commonwealth last October in which they specifically stated:
“The Victorian Government would like to see broad consultation and cooperation, with a working group established which includes all States and Territories to develop a nationally consistent approach to wage theft, reflective of the objectives contained in the Inter-Governmental Agreement for a National Workplace Relations System for the Private Sector.”
Whilst seemingly supportive of a national approach, exactly why then is the Andrews Government now jumping the gun with its own separate legislation?
Furthermore, in an address to the National Press Club last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that as part of the Federal Government’s JobMaker initiative, a ‘compliance and enforcement’ working group, comprising union and employer representatives, will examine and make recommendations on issues including measures to better address wage underpayments.
Daniel Andrews’ wage theft legislation also appears out of step with some in the union movement. ACTU Secretary, Sally McManus on 6 September last year expressed the following:
Making wage theft a crime could distract from more effective ways to tackle the systemic underpayment of workers, the head of the union movement says. "Our focus has been on workers getting their money back…" The Age & Sydney Morning Herald, 6 September 2019
And employer groups are united in their opposition opposed to Daniel Andrews’ Bill and support a national approach to the issue.
The Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry for example, has stated:
“The Victorian Chamber opposes the introduction of Victorian wage theft laws on the basis that they will duplicate and add to the already complex federal system currently in place. We need a national approach. Unnecessary and confusing state by state approaches will damage the business environment and discourage employment. Paul Guerra, Chief Executive VCCI, 1 June 2020, Correspondence to Opposition
Comments attributable to Shadow Attorney-General, Edward O’Donohue:
“Now of all times in the early COVID-19 recovery phase, when many businesses are still on their knees and their futures uncertain, is not the time to be proposing the introduction of additional cost and compliance imposts on business, small and large.
“Daniel Andrews should either withdraw or delay debate on this Bill until the outcome and recommendations of the Federal Government’s JobMaker ‘compliance and enforcement’ working group are known later this year.
Comments attributable to Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, Nick Wakeling:
“We already have a Fair Work Ombudsman; Victorian businesses don’t need another level of government investigating non-compliance.
“The Andrews Government needs to be more proactive in helping businesses survive and deal with challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.”