Any person with some passing interest in national economic and social policy is probably paying attention to the recent cycle of revelations about the ‘wage theft’ issue involving some of the big corporate names in Australian retail, service and finance business…and with good reason.
Australia’s economic performance has not been inspiring in recent years and blame-laying for this state of affairs is always a key feature of election campaigns of the past decade or so.
Few politicians seem to be unable to explain why reasonably strong Australian employment statistics do not reflect any significant advances in wage growth or why inflation remains low, productivity is flat and our GDP bumps along in the lower reaches of the Reserve Bank’s desired band.
Meanwhile, house prices continue to rise again in the desirable areas of the major cities as investors make the most of the low interest rate regime.
Ordinary young people are left scratching for a deposit in the face of a banking sector now reluctant to lend money after being hauled over the coals by a variety of commissions and inquiries.
In short, the economic climate and the actual climate itself are conspiring to flatten the national mood.
And then, just when another blow was not needed, we learn that some major corporate players have been dudding their employees’ wage entitlements while the upper echelons of the companies concerned continue to receive worry-proofed incomes.
It has taken the latest naughty corporate heavyweight, a major supermarket, eight months to admit that many of its hard-working supervisory level managers and others have not received wages and salaries appropriate to their time, effort and responsibilities.
A $300 million oversight.
The big supermarket group joins others such a 7-Eleven, Wesfarmers, hospitality operators, Qantas, Super Retail Group, Commonwealth Bank…and even the ABC…in a group of big companies that have underpaid employees for lengthy periods.
The pace of ‘wage theft’ reports to the Fair Work Ombudsmen has accelerated in the last few years.
While abject apologies from senior executives have been forthcoming and restitution processes implemented, the extent of corporate delinquency is such that even a business-oriented government such as the Morrison administration has been impelled to threaten higher and more severe penalties against wayward corporate operators – including the possibility of gaol time for some executives.
It is understandable that a chorus of “we told you so” calls have come from the union movement and the Opposition.
The current set of examples of bad corporate mismanagement and behaviour comes at a time when the almost legendary perceptions of Australia as an egalitarian country where everyone was entitled to a ‘fair go’ may be fading.
In the early 1900s, Australia not only had the second highest GDP figure on the planet (after New Zealand but ahead of the U.S.) it represented a nation which valued social justice, equal voting rights for men and women, and a thing called the ‘basic wage’.
Today, income inequality is rising quickly in this country; perhaps not to extent as is the case in the United States, but it is evident that the educated, productive middle classes are being squeezed.
Further, despite the range of government benefits, supplementary allowances and rebates which flow to lower incomes in contemporary times it still is not easy for people at the lower end to transition to higher brackets of income.
Many people running small businesses in Australia these days have been battling to balance budgets and meet commitments – before drawing their own wage.
Small business operators too, are under the eyes of regulators when it comes to employee wages, but most owners know that they need to comply with employment provisions – their business future may depend on it.
Big corporate operators who deliberately set out to exploit their workers do this country a disservice.
We need large, efficient and productive businesses to be the principal drivers of our economy but the success of such operations can not be built upon the unfair treatment of their workers.