Wage theft is now a crime in Queensland after new laws were passed on 9 September, 2020.

These new laws could see employers prosecuted, and even face up to 10 years jail time, for deliberately underpaying or withholding entitlements from their workers.

Importantly, the new laws also provide employees with a faster and easier process to pursue unpaid wages claims.

Background

The Criminal Code and Other Legislation (Wage Theft) Amendment Bill 2020 was introduced in response to recommendations made by the Queensland Parliament’s Education, Employment and Small Business Committee in late 2018, to:

  • ensure that wage recovery processes for Queensland workers are simple, quick and low-cost; and
  • legislate to make wage theft a criminal offence, where the conduct is proven to be deliberate or reckless. 

Similar laws addressing wage theft already exist within Victoria, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.

Wage theft is now a criminal offence

The Criminal Code (Queensland) has been amended to include wage theft within the existing offence of stealing.

This captures a wide range of unpaid employment entitlements, including:

  • unpaid hours of work;
  • unpaid penalty rates;
  • unpaid super contributions;
  • unreasonable wage deductions; and
  • avoidance of payments due to:
    • sham contracting; or
    • intentionally classifying an employee under the wrong award.

A maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment applies. Where the underpayment was by a company the corporate officers are able to be prosecuted as accessories to the criminal offence committed by the corporate employer.

The new laws also increase the maximum penalty for the offence of fraud relating to wage theft to up to 14 years imprisonment.

Faster and easier unpaid wage claims

The new laws have also introduced a procedure for wage recovery claims in the Industrial Magistrates Court.

They are intended to bring a timely, inexpensive and informal process for wage recovery claims as upon a claim being filed, the claim is able to be conciliated by an industrial magistrate.

What employers should do

As an employer, you should take steps to:

  • check you are paying the correct entitlements to your employees;
  • review your payroll systems and processes; and
  • respond promptly and effectively to underpayment queries by your employees.

Our experience is that employers can avoid an escalation of wage-related queries by taking advice early so they know where they stand, and communicating courteously and early with the employee who has raised the query.  This is also the case where the employee has misunderstood their wages rights and the employer can explain how and why the employee has been paid lawfully.

For assistance with any wages and entitlements issues contact our experienced employment lawyers.