VFF worried about wage theft legislation

By Jamie Salter

The VFF has voiced dismay at new wage theft laws passed by the Victorian Government last week, saying it could unfairly punish farmers.

Victoria has become the first state in Australia to pass laws establishing criminal penalties for employers who deliberately underpay their workers, but VFF vice-president Emma Germano said there were concerns farmers could be caught up in the law due to "inadvertent errors".

Ms Germano said farmers were committed to ensuring their workers receive income and benefits as they are entitled to under law.

“We already have one of the most complex industrial relations systems in the world,” she said.

“This bill adds a level of complexity and unnecessary duplication that will exist only in Victoria.

“Our very real concern is that farmers could be captured by this bill and unfairly punished for inadvertent errors simply due to the two-track approach to industrial relations.

“Equally, we are worried that burdensome regulatory compliance acts as a disincentive for business owners to employ staff.

“This disincentive means that farmers and their families do the work which staff could be employed to do.”

The Victorian Government says it has ensured that employers who make honest mistakes or who exercise due diligence in paying wages and other employee entitlements will not be subject to the legislation.

Under the law, the Wage Inspectorate of Victoria will be established as a new statutory authority with powers to investigate and prosecute wage theft offences.

Employers who dishonestly withhold wages, superannuation or other employee entitlements, will face fines of up to $198 264 for individuals, $991 320 for companies and up to 10 years’ jail.

Offences will also capture employers who falsify employee entitlement records, such as payroll records, or who fail to keep employment records.

Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said the move followed through with promises to criminalise wage theft.

“Employers who steal money and entitlements from their workers deserve to face the full force of the law,” she said.

Work is under way on reforms to make it faster, cheaper and easier for employees to recover the money they are owed through the Magistrates’ Court.

Industrial Relations Minister Tim Pallas said the changes were necessary to protect workers.

“The establishment of the Wage Inspectorate of Victoria will ensure that employers who do the wrong thing are investigated and held to account,” he said.