How to check you’re not being ripped off by your employer

Wages Photo: Getty

Wages Photo: Getty

A series of wage-theft scandals over recent months have forced Australians to check that their employer is paying all of their wages and leave entitlements.

Woolworths, one of Australia’s largest employers, has been charged over its failure to pay out long service, and slapped with more than 1000 criminal charges amid allegations it owes more than $1 million to some Victorian workers.

The alleged underpayments range from $250 to more than $12,000 and are said to have occurred between 2018 and 2021, and cover more than 1200 former workers.

But as the cost of everything from petrol, the mortgage and groceries climbs faster than wages, Australians are being encouraged to check that their wages and entitlements are being paid.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has been cracking down on breaches, particularly those that affect vulnerable workers.

It has resulted in back payments for workers at David Jones, Crown Melbourne and Suncorp, as well as three separate universities.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has recovered $509 million in unpaid wages and entitlements for more than a quarter of a million workers over the past year, representing one of the largest annual figures in the national regulator’s history.

More than half of the 2022-23 recoveries came from large corporate and university employers.

Apprenticeships are also rife with exploitation, and young workers are particularly vulnerable to wage theft and unsafe conditions, according to the Young Workers Centre.

The legal service recently helped an electrical apprentice settle a dispute with his former employer, winning more than $16,000 in stolen wages and superannuation.

A builder’s labourer was also able to reclaim $9000 in unpaid wages after his employer dodged his calls and blocked his number.

Meanwhile, unions are warning of a looming legislative crackdown that will criminalise wage theft and put money back in the pockets of workers amid a cost-of-living crisis.

Theft is rampant

Wage theft is rampant in Australia.

Red flags could be working unpaid overtime, not being issued with payslips, no weekend rates or public holiday rates, or being paid as a contractor when by all intents and purposes, you’re an employee.

Workers should also be paid to attend meetings or training outside of work hours.

To find out if you’re being paid the correct amount, start by understanding which industrial instrument your employment falls under.

Wage theft is rampant in Australia. Photo: Getty

You could be paid under a modern award, or your employer might have an enterprise agreement in place.

Some employees will fall under state-based legislation rather than federal legislation, said HR executive Lois Andrijich, founder of Life at Work, an HR support business for small- to medium-sized businesses.

You should feel comfortable asking your employer or HR team about your entitlements, but if they don’t tell you, search for your enterprise agreement here.

If you can’t find anything, there’s a good chance you fall under an award, Ms Andrijich said.

Union members should support and seek guidance from their respective unions, who are well versed in employment laws, and can confirm award, classification and entitlements.

“The Fair Work Ombudsman website has an award finder function that helps you to identify your award. This is also relevant for employers if they are unsure. Also, bear in mind that a business can have many different awards relevant to it. Not just one award covers a business,” she said.

Once you have identified your relevant award or instrument, you can read the level descriptions and think about which one is a good fit for your role and duties.

From here, refer to the wage tables for that level and compare your wage, Ms Andrijich said.

HR experts admit that it can be complex to navigate given that a worker’s salary and entitlements may be affected by different and interacting instruments and laws.

Complex laws

For example, employment may be governed by a written contract, by an award or enterprise agreement, or by state, territory or Commonwealth laws, Zana Bytheway, executive director of employment rights community legal centre JobWatch, said.

Where there is any discrepancy between a contract, award or enterprise agreement, whichever is more favourable for the employee will generally prevail. “In other words, it is open to the parties to agree that more favourable rates will be paid,” Ms Bytheway said.

Workers that find a shortfall between the minimum pay rates and the rates actually paid can seek payment of the outstanding salary or entitlements.

“The legal onus to ensure that an employee is paid in full rests with the employer. Where an employer fails to pay an employee at the appropriate rates, it is the employer who is legally at fault,” Ms Bytheway said.

That said, employees should understand the legal instruments that apply to their employment and provide further information to the employer if required.

For example, if a worker recently turned 18 and should be paid under a higher award, they should inform their employer.

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