What Is Wage Theft And What Can You Do About It?

"It's not a few bad apples, it's a regular practice."

Earlier this week Victorian premier Daniel Andrews announced a blistering crack down on wage theft, warning that it doesn't matter if "you're a convenience store chain or a celebrity theft, if you deliberately and dishonestly underpay your workers, if you deny or deprive them of what is rightfully theirs, you will face jail."

It follows a number of high profile cases, from the 7/11 scandal to celebrity chef George Calombaris.

But what does wage theft actually look like, and how do you know if it's happening to you?

What is wage theft?

Wage theft essentially what happens when an employer underpays, withholds pay, or doesn't contribute the legally required payments into your superannuation.

It's so prevalent in Australia is being labelled a "business model", where business owners are getting rich by stealing from their staff and facing very little consequences for doing so.

"It's not a few bad apples, it's a regular practice," Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work (a project of think tank The Australian Institute) told ten daily.

"Union reps don't have the power to get access to pay records or talk to workers who are most vulnerable. We should be giving unions more authority and more freedom to play their role in highlighting wage theft, as well as a genuine enforcement mechanism that's got more teeth than the ombudsman."

Those working in hospitality, retail, cleaning and security, as well as migrant workers, international students and backpackers are most likely to be affected.

Almost a third of 4,000 temporary migrant workers surveyed last year were earning $12 per hour or less. One in seven fruit pickers reported earning $5 per hour or less.

Super theft -- a.k.a. employers not making the legally required super payments into your account -- is also widely prevalent but largely undocumented. The ACTU estimated that one third of working people are underpaid superannuation, and just one analysis of super payments in 2013-14, by Industry Super Australia, found that a whopping 2.76 million Australians were underpaid their super, by an average of just over $2,000 each.

"Bad employers steal wages because they know they will probably get away with it," an ACTU spokesperson told ten daily.

"When the Howard Government changed the law to stop union officials inspecting the books, they took tens of thousands of cops off the wage theft beat. They sent the message to bad business owners that they could steal wages with very little change of being caught."

So what can you do about it?

That's the million dollar question right now. Of course, you can report wage to the Fair Work Ombudsman, but it received more than 14,000 allegations relating to underpayments in 2017, and launched only 42 litigation on the issue.

You can whistleblow, which Stanford points to affecting positive change, but that carries all the risks of whistleblowing and absolutely zero guarantees.

You can take your employer to caught -- a potentially lengthy and costly legal practice, change jobs, or simply cut your losses, but none of these answers are likely to help those most vulnerable to wage theft in the first place.

"I'm very concerned about people who can't speak up for themselves, people with English as a second language or who don't have much English at all, people on 457 Visas who may not know the system to make a complaint, " said Dr Kerryn Phelps on The Drum earlier this week, while discussing the Andrews' government to criminalise wage theft.

"If it becomes criminal, it's very difficult for them to engage a lawyer or the authorities because they might be intimated by those institutions or not have the funds to mount a civil case. I think the systems need to be able to protect the most vulnerable."

There have even been calls for the Department of Immigration to offer amnesty to migrant workers so they don't face deportation for speaking up about illegal working conditions.

The ACTU, which recently launched its 'Change The Rules' campaign, would see the creation of an independent umpire, similar to the landlord tribunal, that would allow issues to be resolved quickly.

"The workplace umpire must have the power to deliver accessible, no-cost and timely justice for victims of wage theft," said the ACTU spokesperson.

"The current situation where people must go through a lengthy, technical and expensive court process that overwhelmingly favours employers is not acceptable."