A whopping 725 workers have been back-paid more than $330,000 after a series of Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) raids identified worrying levels of wage theft in regional Victoria and NSW.
Less than three weeks after recovering $580,000 in stolen wages from regional businesses across Australia’s eastern seaboard, the FWO has unveiled the results of another series of inspections in Albury-Wodonga, Ballarat and Wollongong.
It found nearly half (47%) of the 489 businesses that received surprise door knocks were in breach of workplace laws, including retail outlets, takeaway shops, cafes and bars.
Over a third (35%) of audited businesses were found to be underpaying workers their minimum hourly rates, while 12% weren’t paying correct penalty rates.
The findings are just the latest in a long line of FWO audits identifying widespread wage theft and non-compliance with Australia’s workplace laws, particularly in regional areas.
Wage theft was the most common breach identified by FWO inspectors, followed by record-keeping failures, often used as a tactic by dodgy operators looking to cover their tracks.
Echoing findings from similar campaigns in the past, the ombudsman said a “lack of awareness” was behind the “majority of non-compliant cases”, including the 31% of firms caught stealing wages.
More than half (63%) of employers audited were “unaware” of all applicable workplace relations obligations, 15% had “misinterpreted” award requirements and 9% stole wages because of a “business decision” such as paying a flat rate.
Fair Work focused on specific areas in regional Victoria and NSW with large numbers of university student residents attending nearby campuses, once again demonstrating the link between vulnerable workers and dodgy employers.
“Like many workers in the hospitality industry, young workers in these regions were potentially vulnerable due to their age, visa status and reliance on local jobs to support themselves,” fair work ombudsman Sandra Parker said in a statement circulated on Thursday.
“Australia’s minimum pay rates are not negotiable, and employers in the fast food, restaurant and café sector need to actively check that they are paying their staff correctly before we visit their business.”
Fines totalling $30,360 were handed out in 37 cases, alongside 35 format cautions and nine compliance notices for back payments.
In a similar audit last month, which saw 1,300 regional businesses visited by inspectors, one-in-five (22%) were found to be stealing wages from their workers.
Over $580,000 was recovered in that campaign for 951 workers across more than 300 businesses, bringing the FWO’s total in just the last month to almost $1 million in back payments for nearly 2,000 workers.
The findings are consistent with hauls in earlier raids stretching back several years, indicating wage theft remains widespread, amid calls for reform to Australia’s workplace law regime.
Earlier this year, Parker told SmartCompany there’s ultimately no excuse for businesses not to familiarise themselves with their obligations under the law.
However, sector lobbyists such as the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia (COSBOA) and the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) have repeatedly argued workplace laws are too complex and need to be streamlined.