Think Your Employer Would Never Rip You Off? Think Again

Here’s a quick way of making some extra cash while gaining some knowledge of criminal law.

Quietly siphon some extra money from your employer’s cashflow. Do it regularly over a period of 10 years. Make sure it totals a few million. Then eventually get caught, be arrested and fingerprinted, refused bail and then sentenced to a fair amount of time behind bars.

It’s that simple.

You can do the same thing if you’re a large company employing lots of people. You can, whether deliberately or inadvertently, underpay your staff over a long period and to the tune of millions. The problem is that you won’t get the full criminal law experience. People will likely continue to buy your products. A regulatory authority will give you a slap over the wrists. And community-minded lawyers like me will write a few paragraphs hacking into you while enjoying the dividends you pay to him and other shareholders.

Seriously, wage theft sucks. It is theft. But the thieves get away with it in a manner they would never allow their employees to.

Woolworths has been caught out not paying about 5,700 of its staff in accordance with the relevant Award. This includes unpaid overtime. And their reason? Here’s what Woolworths management said:

“This is a very complex issue which needs an industry-level dialogue on it. At the right time, we'd like to come back and talk about the lack of flexibility in [awards] when interpreted literally.”

Woolworths has been caught out not paying about 5,700 of its staff in accordance with the relevant Award. (Image: AAP)

Seriously? So it’s the fault of the system? So Woolies cannot afford the best and brightest HR and legal team to figure out how much workers should be paid? And I’m sorry, but didn’t successive governments since John Howard’s engage in a comprehensive award simplification process?

And it isn’t just the Fresh Food People either. Who can forget Rockpool Dining Group, fronted by celebrity chef Neil Perry, underpaying its staff a cool $1.6 million? (There is no suggestion that Perry was to blame.) This kind of thing is common in the catering and restaurant business. And their excuse?

"Like many businesses in the restaurant industry, the Group has had to work hard to replace and modernise legacy systems and procedures and that work continues”. Managing the payroll of shift workers with differing rosters and over many sites was "an industry-wide challenge". I’d feel some sympathy for them if they were a small chain of pizza shops. But this is Rockpool, with an exclusive branch in Perth’s Crown Casino.

Who can forget Rockpool Dining Group underpaying its staff a cool $1.6 million? (Image: AAP)

Then there were thousands of international students being ripped off by 7-Eleven. The amount paid to workers was around $150 million. Were it not for a whistleblower, 7-Eleven likely would have continued denying the problem even existed.

Stolen Wages isn’t just something that happened to Indigenous workers during a long period from the 1880s to the 1970s when it was hidden by corrupt officials. Wages of Australian workers of all backgrounds are being stolen by unscrupulous businesses that are household names thanks to their massive advertising budgets.

And it doesn’t just cost the workers themselves. It costs the entire economy. One parliamentary report in Queensland has found that wage theft strips away just under $2.5 billion from the economy of the Sunshine State.

Then there were thousands of international students being ripped off  by 7-Eleven. (Image: AAP)

In regional Australia where unemployment rates are higher than in urban areas, compliance rates with Fair Work requirements are consistently low. One recent Fair Work Ombudsman audit stated that in the La Trobe Gippsland area, only 59 percent of businesses were compliant with workplace laws.

And we aren’t just talking about wages either. We are talking about all conditions and entitlements including overtime and superannuation. The Federal Government is happy to get rid of penalty rates and award tax cuts to employers while so many Australian voters are being robbed blind.

And in case you thought it only happened in the big end of town, consider this. One lawyer recently told me a non-lawyer CEO of a publicly-funded community legal service told them that they could lawfully dock their wages under the Fair Work Act if they didn’t hand in their handwritten fortnightly timesheet on time. This false advice was later confirmed by the organisation’s board. Who knows how many times they tried that one on their non-lawyer staff.

In the current workplace environment, it seems even lawyers can get ripped off.