In an effort to encourage corporate Australia to lift its game when it comes to paying workers properly, Attorney-General Christian Porter is considering forcing employers who underpay their workers to name and shame themselves with public signs.
This suggestion is a part of the discussion paper issued by Mr Porter on Tuesday that outlines a range of reform options to fix Australia’s underpayment issue.
It would add to the government’s already slated introduction of legislation that will criminalise the most serious forms of deliberate worker exploitation and wage underpayments and introduce significant jail terms and fines in the coming weeks.
But to complement that work, the government is also considering a range of options including the strengthening of the existing civil compliance and enforcement framework within the Fair Work Act 2009, to help deter other types of wage underpayments and non-compliance that do not meet the threshold of criminal conduct.
The discussion paper — informed by the report of the Migrant Worker Taskforce that made 22 recommendations to government last year, including the introduction of jail time for employers flouting workplace law — is now taking submissions.
The paper poses various questions, including whether the courts should be given greater powers to disqualify directors of companies where significant underpayments occur; issue banning orders to prevent companies from doing certain things such as employing workers on certain visa types; and issue adverse publicity orders that force companies to disclose or publish their offences.
Moreover, the discussion paper asks whether existing mechanisms such as the small claims processes available through the Federal Circuit Court and state and territory courts could be streamlined to speed up the recovery of unpaid wages for employees.
The paper also explores whether a formal role should be conferred on the Fair Work Commission to help mediate and conciliate in disputes between employers and employees, as a way of delivering faster and cheaper outcomes.
“Like most Australians, the government has been appalled by the number of companies that have recently admitted short-changing their staff — in some cases by hundreds of millions of dollars,” the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations, Christian Porter, said.
“While it’s understood the vast majority of these underpayments were not deliberate and were rectified swiftly, they are incredibly serious and border on negligence given we are talking about sophisticated organisations that should be capable of meeting their obligations under workplace law.
“The Coalition has already increased some civil penalties by a factor of 10, but it is clear to me that more still needs to be done to motivate companies to improve their performance, such as disqualifying directors of organisations that continue to get it wrong.”
No one is immune
Over recent weeks, underpayments have flooded media with many high-profile businesses embroiled in scandal.
After being rocked by staff underpayments to the sum of $7.8 million last year, the restaurant business of former MasterChef Australia judge George Calombaris was placed under voluntary administration just last week.
In similar news, a couple of weeks ago, media reports surfaced pointing to underpayments of $4.5 million in a Melbourne restaurant linked to celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal.
Smaller businesses, too, have been on the radar, pointing to the fact that no corporation, association, business or government agency is immune.
Most recently, a Sydney-based business was penalised for underpaying two migrant workers.