The supermarket giant is only the latest wage thief
It’s hard to express enough contempt for the bosses who have turned wage theft into “business as usual”, as the United Voice union for hospitality and other workers announced today ahead of a protest outside Sydney’s plush Rockpool Bar & Grill. Last week, the union took an official complaint – supported by an 8000-strong petition – to the Fair Work Ombudsman, calling on Rockpool to be prosecuted for one of the “most egregious cases of wage theft Australia has seen yet”. Theft is a criminal offence, but will anyone do jail time? Highly unlikely. Wage theft is losing its shock value after so many underpayment scandals, from 7-Eleven to Bunnings, George Calombaris to the ABC. But the fact that Woolworths, the bluest of blue-chip companies, could rip off 5700 employees by some $300 million over nine years still has the capacity to raise an eyebrow.
Woolworths self-reported to the Fair Work Ombudsman and said it was “deeply sorry” to employees today. Chief executive Brad Banducci told the ABC the buck stops with “me and the executive team”, but confirmed he did not intend to resign. He also mentioned that he had taken plans to the Woolworths board to cut bonuses for “the executive team” (see what he did there?).
In another bit of contradictory corporate-waffle, Banducci said, “Our salaried team store members have been paid in line with their contractual commitments, but we have not accurately paid them for some of the overtime hours that they’ve worked.” Go figure. Banducci simultaneously said there were “no excuses” and that underpayment of the retailer’s staff “was inadvertent”, which sounds like an excuse. In a statement, Woolworths promised to repay employees. The company’s shares are down a couple of per cent today, even though the quarterly sales result was strong. The headline on The Australian Financial Review’s Chanticleer column says it all [$]: “Woolies rips off the very staff behind sales surge”. Mind you, given the way Woolworths treats farmers and other suppliers – or gamblers on the thousands of poker machines it still has a stake in – none of this should be surprising.
Wesfarmers, Commonwealth Bank and Super Retail Group have all been in the same boat. They offer excuses when busted – inadvertent! honest mistake! payroll error! – but no thief ever gets to tell the coppers that. Shadow industrial relations minister Tony Burke today announced that Labor would move to establish a wide-ranging parliamentary inquiry into wage theft. “While Woolworths has today come forward and committed to paying its workers what they’re owed, it should not have taken this long to uncover these underpayments,” he said. “We also know that many employers don’t come clean. Others have tried to cover up their underpayments – or, worse yet, have deliberately used wage theft as part of their business model.”
As Guardian Australia reported in September, the industrial relations minister and attorney-general, Christian Porter, has put out a discussion paper proposing to “stamp out deliberate and systematic wage theft by Australian employers”, but said tough new penalties would not apply for “genuine mistakes”. The government also introduced a bill for a proposed amnesty for employers who failed to pay superannuation, which led to accusations the government was letting employers off the hook. It’s crazy. Wage theft not only hurts the ripped-off workers, it also hurts the economy, which today’s weak inflation figure confirms is yet to come out of the doldrums. Stagnant wages are a big part of the problem, so if the federal government wants economic recovery, the kid gloves with employers have to come off.
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Speaking to the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney last night, the foreign minister called out a number of countries over human rights violations, including Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and China.
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
It’s hard to express enough contempt for the bosses who have turned wage theft into “business as usual”, as the United Voice union for hospitality and other workers announced today ahead of a protest outside Sydney’s plush Rockpool Bar & Grill. Last week, the union took an official complaint – supported by an 8000-strong petition – to the Fair Work Ombudsman, calling on Rockpool to be prosecuted for one of the “most egregious cases of wage theft Australia has seen yet”. Theft is a criminal offence, but will anyone do jail time? Highly unlikely. Wage theft is losing its shock value after so many underpayment scandals, from 7-Eleven to Bunnings, George Calombaris to the ABC. But the fact that Woolworths, the bluest of blue-chip companies, could...
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