Lucas Halkeas, 24, estimates he was underpaid at least $35,000 over the last two years he spent bartending, waiting and managing at a swanky restaurant on the Gold Coast.
He was mostly paid cash in hand, receiving a flat $20 per hour. When he worked 13-hour shifts without a break, and when he worked on the weekends, he did not get any extra payment. Nor did he get payslips.
It wasn’t until he left his job that a friend suggested he might have been underpaid. After contacting the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO), he learnt that he been underpaid by at least $500 a week.
He was “disgusted” when he found out, he told BuzzFeed News. “I was very close to the people that owned the business, so it was actually very insulting,” he said.
Halkeas is one of over 100 people who gave evidence to a Queensland parliamentary inquiry into wage theft, which handed down its report today.
The Education, Employment and Small Business Committee, made up of Labor, Liberal National Party and Katter’s Australian Party members, has recommended that Queensland pass laws to make wage theft a criminal offence, if the underpayments are deliberate or reckless.
But in a "statement of reservation", the LNP members said they had "concerns" about this recommendation because, although anyone deliberately underpaying workers should face consequences, existing criminal offences were sufficient. They also called the inquiry "politically motivated".
“If I put my hand in the till and took a few grand out, there’d be a very heavy prosecution for stealing,” said Halkeas. “So what gives them the right to do the same to me?”
The committee’s report – “A Fair Day's Pay For A Fair Day’s Work?” – estimates that over 437,000 Queenslanders are receiving less than what they’re entitled to, and that this could be costing Queensland’s economy $2.5 billion yearly.
Young workers are particularly vulnerable to wage theft, says Martin de Rooy, the co-founder of Brisbane’s Young Workers Hub, which is helping Halkeas. “We are often unaware of our rights, often in insecure work and don’t know where to seek help,” De Rooy said.
The report found that some businesses are building wage theft into their business model, treating it as standard business practice with little fear of being caught.
Halkeas is in a legal fight at the moment to get his money back.
Andreas*, an 18-year-old international student from China, says he was “super excited” to finally find a job in September after searching for months.
He works as a waiter at a restaurant in Brisbane’s Sunnybank, where he says his boss got him to sign a piece of paper saying he would be paid $18 an hour. However, a week after starting, he says he realised he was only getting $10 an hour cash in hand.
“It was disappointing,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I didn’t realise. I knew that I would get underpaid, but I didn’t know it was that low.”
Most of his co-workers are also Chinese international students, and are being paid the same amount. “I think they accept the way it is because if they complain or something they might lose their job,” he said.
Andreas asked his manager about his low wage, and says she told him not to worry about it and that it wasn’t his business.
He hasn’t complained more, but plans to quit his job if he can find another one. “It’s kind of hard to find a job that pays me the minimum wage, but I’ll try,” he said.
The experiences of Halkeas and Andreas are typical, according to de Rooy. “In our experience the most common case of wage theft is a flat rate which doesn’t include penalties, overtime and other conditions required by law,” he said.
The committee has recommended that the government work to ensure that international students like Andreas have access to information and advice on their workplace rights in Australia. They also want to see a broader public education campaign about entitlements.
Siva*, a 26-year-old living in Caboolture in Queensland, gave evidence to the inquiry. She says she was underpaid by almost $18,000 over 18 months working as a casual at a food manufacturing company.
She had been paid $22 an hour and had no idea this was below her legal entitlements until, 18 months into her employment, the National Union of Workers held a meeting at her workplace. “I was shocked,” she said.
Siva had been struggling financially. She had taken out a loan to travel to her grandmother’s funeral, and it had been difficult for her to pay off her debt.
But Siva didn’t want to confront her managers over the underpayment. “I wouldn’t want to lose my job,” she said. Instead, the union fought for the company’s workers on their behalf. Now she’s being paid $33 an hour, as well as receiving back pay, and is able to save.
De Rooy says recovering the money is a “huge barrier” for young victims of wage theft. It’s especially difficult where workers don’t receive payslips, which is common.
The committee has recommended the government take action to ensure the wage recovery processes are simple, quick and cheap. They’ve also criticised the federal government’s role, saying the regulatory system is under-resourced, and have recommended a review into the FWO’s performance, resourcing and culture to ensure that it can properly respond to wage theft.
* Surnames withheld for privacy.
Hannah Ryan is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Hannah Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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