Wage theft – I’m fucking over it.

Today, a worker contacted me asking if she could go to the police over her employer stealing thousands of dollars from her in unpaid wages. The employer also did not pay this worker’s taxes or student loan which amounts to tax fraud. As a workers rights activist, who founded the hospo campaign called Raise the Bar, the number one issue that workers contact me about is wage theft. Email after email gets sent to me weekly from workers stating that their boss has stolen from them, and I am often asked if they can report it to the police. The very short answer is: No.

Currently wage theft isn’t a criminal offence in Aotearoa and the most these employers will get is a fine for such theft. This means an employer can steal thousands, tens of thousands or even millions from their workers, and they won’t see a day in jail.

Every time I tell a worker that going to the Po Po over wage theft will do nothing, the general response I get is: WHAT. THE. FUCK. Mostly, they express absolute disbelief that employers can steal as much as they want from their workers, and face almost zero consequences. In fact, employers in low waged industries such as hospitality have even expressed exploitation of their workers is worth the risk because the fines are so low. Let that sink in…

I worked in hospo in both Australia and Aotearoa for over 15 years, and most employers stole from me and there was little I could do about it. Unions are mostly disinterested in hospo relating to this issue  and lodging a claim under the Employment Relations Act itself costs $60. At times in the past I didn’t even have enough money for food, let alone a filing fee to lodge a complaint. This is what wage theft looked like for me in the hospitality industry.

Breaks docked from my paycheck that I never took, underpayment of wages (an hour sliced here and there),  bosses just not paying me at all,  bosses withholding holiday pay and/or refusing to pay my IRD or student loan were all part of the norm. I,  like many, was already a low waged and insecure worker,  barely getting by, add wage theft into the mix and you just fall further and further below the poverty line.

In Australia, there has been a sustained effort by the digital union Hospo Voice to push the federal government to criminalise wage theft. Such backing by a union has emboldened and empowered hundreds of hospo workers to take to the streets and fight wage theft. They’ve been speaking out about horrendous examples of exploitation and wage theft in the industry, in the media every single day. One such example is the hospitality workers speaking out against celebrity chef Neil Perry’s Rockpool Hospitality Group. He and his group stole around 10 million dollars worth of wages over a sustained period of time from his employees. It is one of the most egregious examples of wage theft in Australia, ever reported.

Here in Aotearoa, unions such as First Union, have gotten some much needed attention on wage theft in industries such as retail and in supermarkets. However, we are still a long way from any politicians either from the right or left-wing seeing wage theft as a policy or even a political issue. I’m yet to see even one politician in Aotearoa express any real concern over wage theft. Bleak.

There are many hidden costs to wage theft that our media here in Aotearoa and politicians rarely talk about. Here are some of them:

First up, it disadvantages some of our lowest earning workers, in insecure industries such as hospitality. Low waged workers are disproportionately represented by Māori, Asian wahine, Pasifika people and Pakeha wahine. We have politicians talking about our poverty crisis, but rarely do they connect wage theft to this crisis which seems like a massive oversight. We know that wage theft is at the very least costing workers $36 million dollars a year as Stuff Media recently reported, and this is still an incredibly conservative estimate. Something needs to be done about it at a political,  policy and legislative level.

Secondly, the fact that wage theft isn’t a criminal offence in Aotearoa, is clearly an example of sanctioning white collar crime. Meanwhile, we continue to lock up Maori disproportionality for things like selling or possessing cannabis – a drug that does the least harm compared to every other fucking illicit drug on the planet.

Racism and classism is deeply rooted in our employment laws at a structural level and we need to talk about it.

From Australia to Aotearoa wage theft has become a culturally accepted part of business and it is costing workers millions of dollars, yet, I’ve rarely heard a politician from our “left wing” coalition Labour government mention wage theft as an issue. It might be time to take our cues about this from across the ditch, even with a Liberal government in Australia, wage theft is being spoken about in parliament and there are calls for harsher penalties this is all thanks to the before mentioned efforts of Hospo Voice and hospo workers.

On that note I’d like to see some political leadership (even belatedly) stepping up with calls to criminalise wage theft in this country.  If workers can be criminally prosecuted for stealing $50 bucks from the till then employers should, certainly, be criminally prosecuted for stealing thousands and in some cases fucking millions from their workers.

Image credit: Hospo Voice. 


If you’d like to support the advocacy mahi (work) I undertake with Raise the Bar and in workers rights you can donate via these plaforms:

Paypal: king.chloe@gmail.com

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Direct Bank Account (New Zealand/Aotearoa): MISS C A KING, 12-3040-0580277-51