MS TIERNEY (Western Victoria—Minister for Training and Skills, Minister for Higher Education) (20:08): From what I have heard of this debate this afternoon and this evening, the opponents of this bill, rather than tackle the substance of the issues, have sought to prosecute and will prosecute an amendment that will delay the introduction of this bill for up to two years. And we have heard speakers from the Liberal Party wring their hands and say that this is not the right time. I have got to say this beggars belief, from my perspective.
The evidence is clear: wage theft is rife, particularly in the hospitality industry. It has been the case for many decades, but the practice has simply got out of control and we have had worker after worker go to the media and go to various other organisations, including unions, to raise concerns that they have had. Unfortunately it has become commonplace, it has become common practice, and the culture of theft of workers’ wages has become just run of the mill.
That is why we have undertaken the consultations that Mr Tarlamis eloquently outlined, and this essentially has led us to the action that we have adopted in the lower house and of course in the Legislative Council tonight.
We know, particularly at this time when lots of parts of the community are doing it tough, that there are a number of sectors within the working community that are particularly doing it tough—young workers; migrant workers; people who are trying to hold onto their jobs; women, we know, are definitely finding it harder to get by—and therefore they are going to be less likely to complain because they fear losing their jobs. They are worried about their visa status and indeed whether they can pay their rent or whether they are going to have toast and tea or coffee on the table for breakfast the next morning. That is the situation that we are in, and we cannot allow what is already a crime to continue in this state at all, let alone to the level that it has got to, and particularly at this time.
There are employers that are taking advantage of that vulnerability to exploit workers. We know that there are serious issues of underpayment and many employers are requiring them to work more hours than which they are paid for, they are failing to also pay superannuation and they are short-changing workers on leave and break entitlements. This is all wage theft. It is occurring now, and it is time to act now. We do not want a two-year delay. The fact of the matter is that we cannot use the pandemic as an excuse for wage theft. If anything, as I said, the economic environment makes workers more vulnerable to this type of illegal conduct and highlights the need for strong laws.
This bill imposes no new industrial obligations on business. Businesses that underpay their workers are already breaking the law. This bill merely introduces criminal consequences for that conduct. Opponents of this bill have also argued that Victoria should not act because the federal government has announced an intention to legislate on this issue. While this is welcome news that the federal government has recognised this as an issue and is contemplating taking action, we simply cannot wait. We have wage theft laws ready to go. The seriousness and widespread nature of the problem in Victoria necessitates action, and we look forward to working with the federal government on any national wage theft laws. Our strong Victorian laws we believe will serve as a template for laws that can be rolled out across the country.
Opponents of this bill have suggested that state government employers will be measured by a different standard under this bill than private sector employers. This simply is not the case. This bill applies to all Victorian employers, including the Crown. All public sector employers will be subject to the laws, and where public sector employers, including ministers, have deliberately and dishonestly withheld employee entitlements, they will be subject to prosecution under these laws. Wage Inspectorate Victoria is set up as a statutory authority that has independence in decisions regarding who to prosecute.
Finally, opponents have raised concerns about the inspectorate’s powers. This bill does provide the wage inspectorate with strong information-gathering powers, and these powers are necessary to effectively investigate and enforce the new employee entitlement offences. These powers are specifically targeted to the types of conduct where we have seen employers time and time again deliberately withhold entitlements from their employees. The wage inspectorate’s powers are to support investigation and prosecution of alleged offending. The wage inspectorate will not have the powers to make final determinations about whether an offence was committed. This will be a matter for the courts.
The Victorian Inspectorate will monitor the exercise of coercive powers by the wage inspectorate, investigate and assess the conduct of the inspectorate in relation to its use of coercive powers and report on and make recommendations on the performance of these functions.
These criminal wage theft laws are the first of their kind in this country. They will send a strong message of deterrence to employers. No longer will employers be able to flout minimum wage laws with minimum consequence. Employers who deliberately and dishonestly withhold employee entitlements will face up to 10 years in jail and $1 million in financial penalties. Enough is enough, A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work is all workers want in this state. For many of them they have not had that for many, many years. Tonight is the first peg in the ground to make sure that there is equity, fairness and justice in this state in the workplace. I commend this bill to the house.
House divided on motion:
|Barton, Mr||Kieu, Dr||Shing, Ms|
|Cumming, Dr||Leane, Mr||Stitt, Ms|
|Elasmar, Mr||Maxwell, Ms||Symes, Ms|
|Erdogan, Mr||Meddick, Mr||Tarlamis, Mr|
|Garrett, Ms||Melhem, Mr||Taylor, Ms|
|Gepp, Mr||Mikakos, Ms||Terpstra, Ms|
|Grimley, Mr||Patten, Ms||Tierney, Ms|
|Hayes, Mr||Pulford, Ms||Vaghela, Ms|
|Atkinson, Mr||Finn, Mr||O’Donohue, Mr|
|Bach, Dr||Limbrick, Mr||Ondarchie, Mr|
|Bath, Ms||Lovell, Ms||Quilty, Mr|
|Crozier, Ms||McArthur, Mrs||Rich-Phillips, Mr|