Wage Theft

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (17:23): I rise on behalf the Greens to indicate that we will support this inquiry into wage theft in our state. Indeed, this is the land of a fair go. It is in our very national anthem, Advance Australia Fair: 'We've golden soil and wealth for toil'. Not the rum of the rum corps that, in fact, lead to our very first and, I think, only military coup back on 26 January 1808, we like to pay people in real money for their work in this country.

Chances are that people are being served every day by somebody who is not being paid what they are owed, be they wait staff, cleaners, hospitality workers, agricultural workers, tourism, manufacturing, printing, construction workers, or indeed public servants.

When an employee steals money, the police are called, but that does not happen when an employer steals money from a worker. Cases are costly to prosecute, and the Fair Work Ombudsman is a toothless tiger. There is little deterrent, and that is why we urgently need this select committee. The Fair Work Ombudsman was established in 2009, and its role was to provide education, assistance and advice about commonwealth workplace relations systems and to impartially enforce compliance with workplace laws. While the Fair Work Ombudsman can enforce compliance and 'send a strong message of deterrence through penalties such as fines', forcing employers to pay up when they are caught in the act is not actually that easy.

In the 2016-17 financial year, the Fair Work Ombudsman completed 26,917 requests for assistance and recovered more than $30.6 million. To put that in perspective, however, they took 55 of those requests to court, that is, 0.2 per cent of those injustices. Indeed, you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning than of getting justice through the system as we have it now.

Queensland's parliamentary inquiry into wage theft has unearthed harrowing stories about companies underpaying their workers, but the most concerning evidence to come out of the hearing is in fact how little power the government's Fair Work Ombudsman actually holds. In numerous letters and submissions to the inquiry, scorned and underpaid workers have revealed the conversations they have had with the Ombudsman.

Australians run two million businesses right around the country and, while most of them play by the rules, thousands of them do not. However, even prosecuting the thousands that are not paying their workers correctly is not legally or economically viable, and workers and the Fair Work Commission are being left at a stalemate on this issue. There are rules, but not everyone is playing by them. Of course, this is not a game; it is people's very livelihoods and we know that the rules are broken.

That Queensland parliamentary inquiry into wage theft has unearthed stories, including that of Tristan Courtney-Prior. He was one of six employees of Allans Billy Hyde, the music store. They were each owed tens of thousands of dollars in lost wages. Despite Mr Courtney-Prior possessing emails from the company's chief financial officer admitting that Mr Courtney-Prior was owed $17,926 in back pay, he still has not seen a cent. Of the Fair Work Ombudsman, he says:

At first I thought (Fair Work) was very communicative, I thought it was pretty simple because there was a lot of evidence and the company acknowledges that they owed me the money…

He had the evidence that they owed him the money, and it all seemed to be moving ahead, but in mid-2017 to where we are now the company still has not been made to pay back that money. One of Mr Courtney-Prior's workmates in fact took it to court over close to $20,000. The court ruled in his favour in about three minutes. Months later, after that ruling, he is still waiting for the money.

In another submission to the inquiry in Queensland, one woman addressed her frustration. She said her family was housing a formerly homeless teenager when he got a job at Hog's Breath, a restaurant chain that is quite popular across Australia. Eventually, the family and the 16-year-old boy realised that the restaurant owed him money and they contacted the Fair Work Commission and Ombudsman.

In May, somebody from the commission rang her. They informed her that the commission did not have the power to enforce employers to pay the rates and agreements that they had ratified and that there was nothing that they could do for this woman. As she did not think she had heard it correctly, she reiterated her question, and the Ombudsman stated again that they could not do anything because it was an agreement, not an award, and therefore they had no power to enforce that agreement the employer had entered into with the formerly homeless teen she had taken into her family home.

When she asked the Ombudsman what to do, he said, 'Take it up with parliament.' She took it to the Queensland parliament, where they have afforded her that opportunity to have her voice heard. I hope in South Australia we can give those very same exploited workers the same voice, as I am keenly aware from experience that proving that your employer has ripped you off is not actually enough to get justice.

However, the Greens will not be supporting the Marshall government's attempted amendment to this inquiry into wage theft. Indeed, the proposal from the Marshall Liberal government to replace the words wherever they appear in this motion of 'wage theft' with 'the deliberate underpayment of wages and entitlements' I think misses the point or perhaps exemplifies the point. These weasel words are just doublespeak, worthy of George Orwell. Indeed, more broadly, of course, weasel words may refer to any word that is used with the intention to mislead or misinform. While I do not think they are necessarily unparliamentary, I certainly draw the council's attention to that intention.

Many in this place would know of Weasel Words because of the author Don Watson, most well known for writing speeches for our former prime minister Paul Keating, and think this was perhaps a new tactic to shut down or divert debate. In fact, the term was coined as far back as 1900, and it was popularised by Theodore Roosevelt in a speech in 1916. I have always wondered why they were called weasel words because I quite like weasels. They are quite cute, and I think they got a bad rap in Wind in the Willows, but here is why weasel words are what they are. As Stewart Chaplin said back in June 1900 in The Century Magazine in a story entitled 'The stained-glass political platform':

Why, weasel words are words that suck all the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks an egg and leaves the shell. If you heft the egg afterward it's as light as a feather, and not very filling when you're hungry, but a basketful of them would make quite a show, and would bamboozle the unwary.

We are not bamboozled by these weasel words of the Marshall government today. We reject them, just as we reject other understatements to avoid the truth of economic inequality in our society, saying 'economic adjustment' for recession, 'downsizing' for slashing employment or 'economic deprivation' for being poor. These weasel words we will not accept. We will call theft where it is. We would not call a break and enter 'an unconventional entry into a premises designed to extract property'. We would not call a mugging 'unexpectedly relieving a person of their contents'. We will not today agree to resile from the words 'wage theft'. We will not accept the weasel words of the Marshall government.

I commend the Hon. Irene Pnevmatikos for bringing this issue to this place. I echo the words of the Leader of the Opposition in expressing our disappointment that the labour hire provisions to protect those most marginalised and exploited workers in our community are not being honoured by the Marshall government. It was certainly not transparently put before the people of South Australia prior to the election that they would not honour those commitments.

I have very little doubt that this committee, when set up, will uncover the extent and nature of our state's experiences of wage theft. I hope that inquiry will raise not only awareness that workers are being ripped off, because we know they are, but what the committee must also do is ensure, where it does occur, that the remedies are enforceable and appropriate. This committee will give both the force of public debate and the exposure required to drive the reforms necessary.

It is time to ensure that 'wealth for toil' is not just a line in our national anthem. It is also just not cricket to have wage theft in South Australia in 2018. It is not an even playing field now, and it is time to enforce the rules; in fact, it is time to change the rules.

The Hon. R.I. LUCAS (Treasurer) (17:33): I rise on behalf of the government to indicate very strongly the government's opposition to any employer in South Australia, or indeed the nation, who deliberately underpays his or her workers. I share the views that other colleagues have put that it is un-Australian, it is unfair and, more importantly, it is unlawful and, therefore, the full extent of the law should be brought down upon those employers.

As a regular listener to Triple J, it is one of the very few stations which publicises the regular decisions of the Fair Work Ombudsman. You very rarely hear it referred to, even on the ABC with great respect, or on commercial radio stations or outlets. It is not deemed to be newsworthy but Triple J has a market and an audience. In particular, the workers who are more regularly offended against through deliberate underpayment of wages happen to be young people. Most frequently, it is the hospitality industry, the retail industry, hairdressing, and a variety of other examples, that the Fair Work Ombudsman has continued to highlight.

Credit to Triple J and its listening audience, but credit to Triple J for continuing to highlight the injustice that is reaped upon their target audience, in particular young people. It is obviously not solely an injustice directed to young employees but it seems in many cases that is the major impact.

There has already been an inquiry in the Queensland Parliament, to which some members have referred. There has also been an inquiry in the federal parliament. I am not sure whether members have referred to that. I think the advantage of an inquiry in terms of the potential for other mainstream media perhaps to highlight what is an injustice, whenever evidence is given, in and of itself should be very useful in terms of highlighting the obligations of employers in South Australia to do the right thing by their workers.

I do not think there is anybody—certainly in this parliament, and I suspect most fair-minded people in the community—who would support the deliberate underpayment of lawful entitlements in terms of wages and conditions for employees. As I said, even though this select committee will be struggling for space in terms of battling amongst the many select committee and standing committee inquiries we have—

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