Chantelle Zentveld, 17, was thrilled when she got an after-school job at the fast-food franchise Subway, but she soon suspected she was being underpaid.
Rhiana Witson reports for ABC News.
"I calculated how much I was meant to get paid if I got paid the legal amount. And it was close to $300 for eight weeks of work."
The teenager is now taking Subway to the Fair Work Commission to terminate the enterprise agreement she was working under, which had an expiry date of 2015, and covers around 60 Subway employers in three states.
Such "zombie" agreements are based on outdated award conditions, with workers still paid under the old enterprise agreement.
Chantelle and her union, the SDA, argue the agreement included wages and conditions that had not kept up with modern awards, leading to underpayment.
“The motivating factor for challenging it was seeing my other co-workers be so oblivious to it all. And knowing that I had more knowledge than they might have inspired me to take action and help others,” Chantelle says.
This week, a senate inquiry set up in 2019 to look at wage theft after a string of high-profile cases, quietly tabled its report.
It found the unlawful underpayment of employees in Australia was systemic, sustained and shameful.
Most workers are too scared to speak out about underpayment, because they’re fearful of the repercussions, but it’s a huge problem, and is estimated to cost workers around $6 billion a year in lost pay and superannuation.
Migrant workers and international students such as Carla are at a higher risk of exploitation. She was fired from her traffic control job when she asked why she had not been paid.
“I felt afraid. I worried. I was just a traffic control girl. I work and I felt intimidated.”
Redfern Legal Centre helped Carla pursue her former employer in the Fair Work Commission in an unfair dismissal claim and in the Federal Court to recover the money she was owed.
“After nine months, [her former employer] finally paid me,” says Carla.
Lawyer Sharmilla Bargon — the coordinator of The Employment Rights Legal Service, which is a collaboration between Redfern, Kingsford and Inner City Legal centres — agrees with the report’s findings that the current regulatory framework is inadequate for pursuing wage and superannuation theft.
"The entire system allows for both the conditions that give in to exploitation and then creates incredible barriers for people to pursue their own underpaid wages using the existing legal structures."
However, Ms Bargon says the report does not go far enough when it comes to improving protections for temporary visa holders, who face rules around their working conditions.
“If they are on temporary visas, they won't even want to raise the possibility of underpayments with employers for the perceived risk to their visa, which can be more important to them than any other payment.”
She also says there is a lack of enforcement action against dodgy bosses and, instead, it is typically the visa holder who is punished.
"It’s critical that migrant workers be given a bridging visa or space to allow them recover unpaid wages.