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Wage theft is on the rise – know your rights

Every week in the media there seems to be a new story detailing the latest cases of underpayments and worker exploitation in Australia. There have been shocking stories of vulnerable workers working huge amounts of unpaid overtime, new employees working for free under the guise of a ‘trial shift’, and workers simply being paid far less than the law requires. The union movement has, with justification, described these practices of underpayment as “wage theft”, and urged that criminal penalties be introduced. 

The cases reported in the media are just the tip of the iceberg.  As the problems of wage theft continue it is important that you know your rights and entitlements, as well as your legal options if you think you have been underpaid. 

International Workers Disproportionately Affected – but Local Workers also Victims  

The exploitation and under-payment of workers disproportionately affects international students and those on worker visas. This is due in part to the greater vulnerability of these groups, who may not be aware of the legal protections in place, or who may be more exposed to unscrupulous employers due to a lack of fluency in English. 

This issue recently came to renewed public attention when an unpaid wages dispute led to a violent confrontation in a bubble tea store in Adelaide’s Chinatown. The footage of the incident, which went viral across social media, led to rallies and protests. In the footage a young woman was seen asking about her wages.  The man she is arguing with kicks her in the stomach and slaps her. The woman says she was only paid between $10 and $12 an hour – far below the minimum wage of $25.51. 

It is not only international workers who have found themselves being underpaid – Australian workers are also frequent victims of wage theft. For example, a recent audit of the University of Sydney revealed that its workers have been underpaid to the tune of $42 million. Similarly, staff at annoying hipster burger bar Mary’s Underground have alleged that they are required to work up to 60 hours a week without receiving the overtime or time-in-lieu that they are legally required to receive.  

If you find yourself one of the millions of workers in Australia who have been underpaid by your employer, it is important to know your legal options you can take to receive the payments you are owed.

What Can I do if my Employer has been Underpaying Me?  

If you believe you have been underpaid by an employer, there are several steps that you should take.   

First and foremost, you should determine how much you are owed by your employer. You can do this by reviewing your employment contract and then checking the minimum amount you should be paid as under the Award that applies to you. Determining the correct Award can be complicated, often requiring assessment of classification and job roles, as well as determining the applicability of overtime payments and other allowances, so it is a good idea to have an expert to assist you. You can seek advice from your union, or from lawyers such as Segelov Taylor.  

You may consider pursuing legal action to recover the payments you are legally entitled to. A court case against you employer can be a lengthy and complicated process, and it is therefore important to have expert legal advice to ensure you are putting forward the best case possible. 

If you claim for unpaid wages and entitlements is for less than $20,000, your case is likely to be heard within the Federal Circuit Court’s small claims jurisdiction. Ordinarily, mediation will be facilitated by the Court, to give you and your employer an opportunity to resolve the dispute to everyone’s satisfaction. However, if mediation is unsuccessful, your case will be decided by a judge in Court.  

In most cases, the statute of limitations is six years from the date on which you should have been paid. If you believe you have been the victim of underpayment at any point in your career, you should not delay in seeking advice from an expert solicitor, or else risk losing your opportunity to receive the money that is owed to you.  

Segelov Taylor Lawyers Can Help 

If you have believe you have been underpaid at work, we can provide guidance, advice, and representation to ensure the best outcome possible.  

Segelov Taylor principal David Taylor is an accredited specialist in employment law. If you have concerns about the payments you have received at work, please get in touch by email or by phone (02) 8880 0500. 


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