Wage theft a ‘business model’

 

LOW-PAID Queensland workers have detailed a range of workplace allegations to a federal wage theft inquiry, telling of long outdated conditions, sham contracting and bosses unfairly docking their pay.

The stories are detailed in submissions handed this month to a Senate inquiry examining employee underpayments, which will propose measures to combat the problem by December.

It comes as the Palaszczuk Government moves to criminalise wage theft in the state after its 2018 inquiry found it was costing $1.22 billion a year in lost wages and hurting 437,000 people.

A roll call of big corporate brands caught up in underpayment scandals has recently pushed the issue into the national spotlight.

Neil Perry’s Rockpool Group is one of the high-profile companies accused of underpaying staff. Picture: Jane Dempster.
Neil Perry’s Rockpool Group is one of the high-profile companies accused of underpaying staff. Picture: Jane Dempster.

 

7-Eleven, supermarket giants Woolworths and Coles, celebrity chef Neil Perry's Rockpool restaurant group, Justin Hemmes' Merivale pub chain and George Calombaris's MAdE hospitality empire are among those to have been accused of underpaying staff.

Many big companies have set aside millions of dollars to backpay staff amid legal action by employees.

Hospitality, security and contract cleaning workers have been worst hit by underpayments, according to the Queensland Council of Unions submission to the Senate inquiry.

The union has called for reckless and dishonest conduct by employers involved in underpayments to be made a criminal offence at a federal level and for regulators to take a tougher stance on wage theft to deter what it says has become a "business model."

The Sunday Mail does not suggest any of the companies named in this article have knowingly underpaid staff.

Laws should also be introduced to remove directors involved in criminal conduct involving wage theft from office, it says.

"I think in quite a number of areas, and it's worse in specific industries than others, but in many areas (underpayments) is factored in as a cost of doing business," state secretary Michael Clifford said. "It has become part of the business model," he said.

He said factors included the decline in union membership, reduced union rights and a fixation on the Fair Work Ombudsman on going after trade unions.

"There needs to be a body dedicated just to going after issues of wage theft," he said.

The union submission features the claims of two former employees of Queensland's Mantle Group Hospitality, owner of the Pig 'N' Whistle pub chain.

Owned by Brisbane millionaire Godfrey Mantle, Mantle Group has 15 venues across two states.

Mantle Group has denied any wrongdoing, including that staff were underpaid. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Mr Mantle.

Former Pig ‘N’ Whistle Riverside casual Tom Thexton was paid a flat rate under the so-called “zombie” agreement, which makes no provision for penalty rates or overtime for casuals. Picture: Jon Gellweiler
Former Pig ‘N’ Whistle Riverside casual Tom Thexton was paid a flat rate under the so-called “zombie” agreement, which makes no provision for penalty rates or overtime for casuals. Picture: Jon Gellweiler

The former employees' accounts were first revealed in The Courier-Mail.

One of those was former Pig 'N' Whistle Riverside casual Tom Thexton, who has spoken out about being hired under the company's long-outdated workplace agreement first written in 2000.

Mr Thexton, 24, was paid a flat rate under the so-called "zombie" agreement, which makes no provision for penalty rates or overtime for casuals.

"He would often work after hours and on public holidays and receive only the flat rate of $24.36," the union says.

"In comparison, the modern award rate for work on public holidays is $60.90 per hour," it says.

Mr Thexton has told the inquiry the transient nature of the job and reliance on vulnerable backpackers and students was a part of the picture.

"They rotate so much that no-one ever gets an understanding that they're being ripped off and the company thrives off that environment," he says.

A Mantle Group spokeswoman this month said its workplace agreement was re-validated by the Fair Work Commission in 2010 and the nominal expiry date was extended until 2013.

She said it "remains in force after the nominal expiry date as a matter of law and it continues to operate as an approved and legally binding agreement."

Under the rules, a current employee would need to make a termination application in the Fair Work Commission to have it replaced.

But the union has backed a call by the State Government for the Federal Government to legislate an automatic termination date for "zombie" agreements.

Declan Langlands in front of the Pig N Whistle in Brisbane’s CBD. Picture: Steve Pohlner
Declan Langlands in front of the Pig N Whistle in Brisbane’s CBD. Picture: Steve Pohlner

Another former Mantle Group casual, Declan Langlands, 22, who earned $24 an hour, has also claimed at the Senate inquiry that the company docked his pay to cover the cost of a customer leaving without paying the bill.

The inquiry was told a venue manager also sent staff a message stating they would deduct $49 from each employees' pay packet following a "shocking" stocktake.

Mr Mantle last year said deductions from wages should not have been occurring and any worker who had their wages docked would be refunded.

Mr Langlands said he was also kept on the introductory pay level, despite working the Pig 'N' Whistle for seven months.

Mantle Group has denied the claim.

Originally published as Wage theft a 'business model'



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