Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Queensland wage theft inquiry

The Queensland state government has commissioned a parliamentary inquiry into wage theft.

This comes on the back of scores of cases where employers have been caught not paying workers their legal entitlements. Unions are pushing for fines and for bosses to face the prospect of up to 10 years jail for underpaying workers.

In submissions made to the inquiry employer groups have predictably sought to downplay the problem. The Housing Industry Association, for example, said the whole concept of wage theft “has been greatly exaggerated”.

The Australian Industry Group reckons the term ‘wage theft’ “risks inappropriately branding employers who mistakenly underpay their employees as criminals.” The underpayments made are clearly not mistakes. They are deliberate attempts to increase profits.

The National Retail Association prefers to call wage theft “wage non-compliance”. They said, “there will always be a business operator with insufficient understanding, or insufficient scruples, for this to occur”. Socialists point out that that this type of wage theft is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Under capitalism – even in the best-case scenario – only a portion of the value that workers produce comes back to them in the form of wages. The rest of the wealth created by workers is taken by the boss in the form of profits. In that sense, the entire wages system is a form of theft.

Socialists fight for improved wages and for employers to adhere to all of their legal obligations. That at least limits the amount of exploitation that workers face. With that in mind, we support the criminalisation of wage theft including jail terms for “non-compliant” bosses.

But while putting limits on exploitation is a step in the right direction, socialists go further, fighting for a different system where all of the wealth produced is used for the benefit of the many rather than hived off for the profits of a few.

By Anthony Main