Queensland is the latest state to make wage theft a crime.
New laws passed in Parliament on Wednesday will see employers in Queensland facing a maximum of 10 years in jail for wage theft – which includes underpaid wages, witholding leave and penalty entitlements, or not making the necessary super contributions. It’s the same penalty for “stealing as clerk or servant”.
The laws will also make it faster and easier to recover unpaid wages.
“These new laws recognise that the current framework is not doing the job – something needs to change to stop rampant wage theft,” Queensland Minister for Industrial Relations and Education, Grace Grace said in a statement.
“Stronger penalty and deterrence measures are needed for those who commit wage theft, particularly where it is deliberate and systematic and part of an employer’s business model.”
According to Grace, one in four Queensland employees is affected by wage theft, an action that leaves workers $2.2 billion out of pocket each year in unpaid wages and superannuation.
The new laws come after a parliamentary inquiry into the impact of wage theft on Queensland staff.
“The inquiry heard from workers and employers who agreed that more needed to be done to address this issue,” Grace added.
In June 2020, Victoria became the first state in Australia to pass laws that enforced criminal penalties on employers who deliberately commit wage theft. The penalties include up to $198,264 in fines for individuals, $991,320 for companies and up to 10 years in prison.
A number of companies have been reported to have been underpaying staff in recent months, including the University of Melbourne, Westpac and Woolworths.
Earlier this week, The Fair Work Ombudsman revealed that before the coronavirus pandemic, it recovered more than $1.2 million in unpaid wages for 1351 employees across the restaurant, cafe, fast food and retail industries.
“While we know some of our priority sectors, including many fast food, restaurant and café businesses, have been seriously impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and are under considerable financial strain, we will continue to enforce workplace laws in a proportionate way,” Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said in a Facebook post.
“We will focus on ensuring that any underpayments of workers are back-paid promptly, and where serious non-compliance is found, we will take enforcement action.”