Who would have thought a celebrity chef, best known for his appearances on a television cooking competition, could inadvertently throw a bucket of cold water over the Coalition government's bid to ram through the most comprehensive suite of industrial reforms since WorkChoices?
That's what happened this week when it was revealed MasterChef's George Calombaris underpaid 515 employees more than $7.83 million between 2011 and 2017.
The case refocused attention on the many instances of serious wage theft in the past decade. Recent offenders have included 7-11, Pizza Hut and Dominoes, Red Rooster, Caltex and Baida.
The imbalance in power between employers and their victims was highlighted in an ACTU submission to a Queensland Government wage theft inquiry in 2018. It said 25 per cent of all international students earned $12 an hour or less and 79 per cent of hospitality employers in Victoria did not pay award wages between 2013 and 2016. Sham contracting, unpaid superannuation contributions and the denial of overtime payments, shift allowances and other loadings were just some ways workers were being ripped off.
Up to $5.9 billion in unpaid superannuation is being stolen from an estimated $2.98 million workers each year alone.
While none of this comes as news to anybody who takes an interest in workers rights and welfare, the re-ignition of this debate is the last thing Scott Morrison and his Industrial Relations Minister, Christian Porter, need while they are trying to drum up crossbench support for their controversial "Ensuring Integrity Bill".
That bill, which has been strongly backed by employer groups including the Australian Industry Group and the Australian Mines and Metals Association, is allegedly intended to bring union officials into line with the same ethical and legislative requirements supposedly applied to company directors and senior executives.
Innes Wilcox and Steve Knox, the chief executives of the AIG and the AMMA respectively, have also called for changes to the way in which casual work is defined, the exclusion of some staff from enterprise agreements, a review of unfair dismissal laws and an extension in the permissible maximum term of enterprise agreements.
The integrity bill has been roundly attacked as yet another attempt by the LNP to indulge in some serious union busting.
The integrity bill has been attacked as yet another attempt to indulge in union busting.
According to research by the International Centre for Trade Union Rights, the Ensuring Integrity Bill is "incompatible with Australia's commitments under the 100 year old International Labour Organisation's "Freedom of Association and Protection of Rights to Organise Convention (1948)" and its "Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention (1949)".
The bill would allow for the automatic disqualification of union officials charged (but not yet convicted) with serious criminal offences punishable by five or more years in prison.
It would also allow the Fair Work Commission to block union mergers and make it possible for the government to cancel a union's registration on the basis of alleged improper conduct.
The exposure of what appears to be systematic underpayment by employers makes it hard for employer groups, and the Coalition, to plausibly suggest corporate Australia needs additional protection against organised labour.
Cases such as these raise questions about who are the real villains in this space and who needs to be protected from whom.
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