Image credit: Faruq Al’ Aqib via Unsplash
You check your email for your payslip, and there, it’s missing again – the overtime hours from that busy Friday night make no appearance. All the hours that didn’t make it into your pay would probably amount to a week’s worth of rent by now. But the thought of similar complaints being snarkily dismissed by your boss in the past deters any idea of even raising it again. You sigh as you slap on your backpack and leave the door for another Friday night shift.
Being underpaid is an experience too many employees have become accustomed to.
However, since 1 July 2021, it is now a crime for employers to deliberately or dishonestly withhold employees’ wages, entitlements or superannuation in Victoria. Under the recently passed Wage Theft Act 2020, individuals may face a fine of up to $218,088 or up to 10 years’ imprisonment for:
- Deliberately and dishonestly underpaying employees
- Deliberately and dishonestly withholding wages, superannuation or other employee entitlements
- Falsifying employee entitlement records in order to gain a financial advantage
- Not keeping employee entitlement records in order to gain a financial advantage
The newly established Wage Inspectorate Victoria led by Commissioner Robert Hortle will overlook reports on wage theft, conduct investigations, and prosecute employers who have contravened the Act.
Why is this important for international students?
International student workers are a vulnerable group of employees, often due to a lack of awareness of workers’ rights, language barriers, and/or limited accessible information on where to obtain legal support.
Often, the desperation to cling on to a job with unfair working conditions means that international students are more easily exploited by employers who use this vulnerability to their advantage. This fear of job loss has been exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding employment during the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased potential for redundancy.
However, what may initially appear to be small amounts of pay being withheld can add up to a significant amount over time. A recent SBS article reported former international student Anchalee Suwan’s estimate that, over the span of ten years, she was underpaid $100,000 in wages and superannuation. This is money that workers have rightfully earned, but have been deprived of.
The 2020 International Students and Wage Theft in Australia report showed that 37 percent of surveyed international students did not find information or help when a problem arose at work, because they did not believe it would help them. More interestingly, 40 per cent reported that they did not do so because many people around them who experienced the same problems did not do anything about it.
What this reveals is the influence employees have on each other and the power of collective action. The more workers who come forward to report wage theft, the more likely a substantive change to workplace problems like underpayment will effectuate.
By reporting suspected wage theft and encouraging those around you to do the same, it can hold offending employers accountable and contribute to a fairer working system.
Am I being paid correctly?
To find out your minimum wages, you can use the Pay and Conditions Tool (PACT) on the Fair Ombudsman website, which is a pay calculator. Based on your circumstances, it will list base pay rates, allowances and penalty rates you should receive on any certain date.
I haven’t been paid correctly, what can I do?
If you believe that your pay is incorrect, the Fair Work Ombudsman suggests raising the problem first with your employer and offers a guide on how to do this.
However, where this is ineffective or not possible, consider reporting a suspected wage theft to the Wage Inspectorate Victoria through this link. You will need to submit information about your employment and employer, and attach relevant documents where prompted.
Though there is an option to submit an anonymous report, it may not be able to proceed if you cannot submit information and documentation relevant for the inspection.
You are not guaranteed to have your withheld wages paid back since the wage theft laws do not specifically account for this, but there are several alternatives you can try. These include contacting the Fair Work Ombudsman, contacting a union if you are a member, or lodging a claim at the Magistrates’ Court or Circuit Court.
No worker should have to stand by and watch their hard-earned wages and entitlements disappear. While Victoria’s criminalisation of wage theft is now one step closer to deterring employers from offending, it ultimately relies on your reports to significantly transform the system.