“inadvertent errors are not ‘theft’:” ARA weighs into wage theft saga

The Executive Director of the Australian Retailers Association, Russell Zimmerman, today weighed into debate over so-called “wage theft,” saying complex Awards were the cause of most underpayments, and that despite the vast majority of retailers making every attempt to comply, the opacity of Awards made mistakes inevitable.

Noting Coles had budgeted $20m to fix underpayments it found in a review, he said underpayments that had emerged recently were due to complex industrial instruments and mostly did not reflect ill intent by companies involved.

“Whether for big retailers or small, the ARA knows from communication with its members that our Award – the General Retail Industry Award, or GRIA – is a constant source of frustration and errors,” Mr Zimmerman said.

“The GRIA features approximately 1,000 ways to classify staff for payment purposes – and that’s before we get to the NES, or talk about businesses employing under multiple Awards. The scope for mistakes is vast,” he added.

Mr Zimmerman said he rejected the apparent premise of inquiries into so-called “wage theft” by state and federal governments that retailers were criminals, saying governments had shown no interest in Award simplification.

“That might sell papers, but when Woolworths, Bunnings, Super Retail Group, or non-retailers like Qantas or the ABC have identified mistakes and fixed them, it’s too simplistic and just wrong to accuse them all of “theft,” he said.

“Yes, we’ve seen quite a number of them, but I emphasise the point: inadvertent errors are not ‘theft’,” he added.

Mr Zimmerman said an ARA member recently discovered an underpayment that went undetected for four years, with external auditors failing to find it during annual audits. The issue has been fixed and staff repaid, he added.

“This just illustrates what we have been saying about Award complexity for a long time now. When even independent auditors can’t find errors because the Award is so complex, it really is a problem,” he said.

“In fact, we understand a big professional services firm may be the next in line to reveal underpayments in its own company. That really does drive the point home,” Mr Zimmerman added.

Mr Zimmerman said Australia’s IR landscape had descended into a miasma in which the Coalition shunned meaningful reform for fear of being accused of embarking on “WorkChoices II,” while Labor had devised the Fair Work Act and “modern” Awards when in office explicitly to appease unions, and was uninterested in changing them.

“Instead of convening hillbilly courts to crucify businesses struggling with ridiculously complex laws that are unfit for purpose, or calling people names, we want both sides of politics to show some bottle and engage on IR reform rather than taking pot shots at each other and covering their backsides,” Mr Zimmerman concluded.

/Public Release. View in full here.