Billion Dollar Burden: The Unfinished Business of Wage Theft Reform.

August 2023

Key Points

  1. After years of Coalition inaction, the Federal Labor Government are proposing welcome laws to curb wage theft.
  2. Most businesses do the right thing — but are undercut by less scrupulous competitors.
  3. Our new report quantifies wage theft in every Federal Electorate. Find out how your community is effected below.
  4. Wage theft is costing Aussies over $1bn per year.


When Aidan was working for a major restaurant group in Melbourne, he’d often be on the job for over fifty hours per week. 

Hospitality is hard. Long hours. Overtime. Often unsociable hours. 

But in many high-end restaurants, some workers wouldn’t have it any other way: cooking and hospitality is a passion for many, and they’re willing to work hard to make it in the business. 

Sometimes, though, this passion can be taken advantage of.

Aidan was an enthusiastic chef. 

But despite putting in extraordinary hours and dedicating himself to the work, he soon realized it was a one-way street. 

“​​I worked for some big-name restaurants where I’d do 45 to 50 hours a week and would be paid for a 37-38 hour week”, he tells us. 

He wasn’t alone. 

“People around me were working 20 or 30 hours above what they were paid. There were a lot of brush offs and denials [by the employer].” he says, noting that he wasn’t working for a small business inadvertently making mistakes. 

This was a big company, with an HR person, people doing payroll. It definitely felt like they were deliberately under-paying workers rather than it being a few accidents from time-poor people without experience in running a business.


Wage theft costing Aussies over $1bn per year

Aidan is one of four stories in our latest report, Unfinished Business.

The report takes stock of recent efforts to crack down on wage theft around Australia and updates McKell’s past estimates of the scale of wage theft in our communities on the eve of the Federal Government’s proposed laws to address it. 

This action is sorely needed. Aiden’s story, and those like it, are all too common. And it costing Australians well north of $1 billion every single year. 

Documented cases of wage theft undoubtedly reveal just the tip of the iceberg. The practice occurs out of sight of many, and sometimes, is covered up by employers. 

This was the case with another of our case studies, Anna, who was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement promising not to discuss her case of underpayment, as a condition of receiving back-pay. 

In a cost of living crisis, every dollar counts. And governments need to do all in their power to end this malicious, costly practice. 


Wage theft pervasive despite recent attention

The Federal Government is currently consulting on the proposed legislation addressing wage theft. 

There is a broad consensus among employers and unions and across parliament that the most egregious examples of intentional, malicious underpayment be subject to criminal sanction. 

This is essential. 

There are, however, other levers that can be pulled to ensure any federal approach is adequately enforced, and that is works in harmony with existing state approaches. 

It is also vital that the proposed laws around the criminalisation of wage theft remain strong enough to act as a genuine deterrent, and aren’t watered down to such an extent that they become ineffectual.


New enforcement measures at a state level having an effect

The former Coalition Government dropped the ball on wage theft. It ignored pleas from unions, workers, civil society and major employer peak bodies to take meaningful, appropriate action to deter wage theft from occurring.

In this vacuum, state governments began to step up. 

Wage theft is now a crime in Queensland and Victoria. Criminalisation is on the cards in other states, too. 

Beyond criminalisation, state governments have begun enforcing the law as well. 

The Victorian Government’s Wage Inspectorate is the best example. It has been highly effective in both deterring wage theft, and identifying cases of wage theft, augmenting the Federal Government’s own agencies. 

The Federal Government intervention will need to navigate these various state actions, ensuring that federal and state authorities. 

We are close to seeing a national approach to this persistent economic injustice in Australia. This is a change we should all welcome.


Our latest data reveals electorate-level impact of wage theft

Our report quantifies the scale of wage theft in every federal electorate. 

Want to know how much your community is being affected by wage theft?

Search for your Federal Electorate below to find out.