Here’s how we can help to end wage theft

As consumers, we’re all complicit in screwing down low-paid workers. That’s got to change.

Photo by Mike Mozart via flickr/Creative Commons

THE day of reckoning has arrived for Australian consumers. Media exposés of wage fraud and exploitation at well-known consumer chains are now so regular they cannot be ignored.

The latest business to come under the spotlight is sharemarket darling Domino’s, famed for its $5 value pizzas. It comes after similar revelations about 7-Eleven, Caltex and Pizza Hut.

These are not isolated cases but the outcomes of a deliberate and systemic franchise business model built on exploitation all the way down the chain from head office to the worker behind the counter. It’s the industry’s dirty secret.

You can guarantee that the practices uncovered at Caltex, 7-Eleven and the like are being replicated at other convenience store and fast food franchise chains — all around Australia, franchise businesses quaking in their boots at the thought they could be the next to be exposed to the world for the same kind of behaviour.

In a country as wealthy and prosperous as Australia, supposedly built on egalitarian traditions, these things shouldn’t happen. That the victims are predominantly recent migrants lured on the promise Australia is the home of the fair go should shame us all.

At its heart is a culture of corporate greed that regards exploitation of workers as just another part of doing business.

And we, as consumers, are part of the problem. We are also complicit in the wage fraud of thousands of our fellow Australians.

Our desire for cheap and convenient goods and services is large part of the problem, and because of our selfishness, we’ve been willing to turn a blind eye at the exploitation taking place right under our noses.

Every time we buy a super-cheap Slurpee or a $5 pizza we are effectively legitimising this wage theft. Let’s face it: we don’t buy Domino’s pizzas because they taste good, we buy them because they’re cheap. And they are cheap because they are made and delivered by people whose wages are being stolen by their employer.

And it’s not just fast food and convenience stores. Big retailers like Coles and Woolworths also have benefitted from being able to put cheap fresh produce and meat on their shelves through the exploitation of workers in their supply chains of farms and food processing plants.

IF we didn’t know already, the Domino’s case tells us that the franchise system stinks.

It is designed to screw everyone down the chain with the worker at the bottom getting the most screwed of all.

The franchisee is caught in the middle: they buy in thinking they will be owner of a profitable small business, but quickly discover they are beholden to the franchisor. Not only are they legally bound to pay them rent and royalties, but commonly they must purchase their stock and raw materials from the franchisor, even if they are available cheaper elsewhere. It is possible to feel some — not a lot, but some — empathy for the franchisee.

But at the end of the chain, something has to give and almost always it is the wages of the workers.

When wage fraud is discovered, once again it is the franchisee in the hot seat; the franchisor is technically not the direct employer so they can legally absolve themselves of any responsibility for the rampant exploitation taking place in their chains. But morally they are up to their necks in it.

The stories exposed by Fairfax are just the tip of the iceberg, and the frustration for the labour movement is that it has been stymied from stopping it.

The contemporary anything goes employment environment is the logical outcome of a determined business crusade over several decades to de-unionise Australian workplaces and erode workers’ protections rights which has left vulnerable workers — particularly migrants and the young — open to exploitation with few protections and limited recourse to the law or to help from unions.

With diminished union presence in workplaces, employers have been free to use and abuse workers with very few consequences.

Workers need to be empowered to fight back and historically, the vehicle to do that has been through unions.

The labour movement must be supported so unions can have restored to them the powers to investigate, to organise and take action industrially in cases like these, because clearly, the regulators are asleep at the wheel time and again.

This provides an opportunity for unions to reverse their declining membership and slow drift into irrelevance by representing a whole class of workers who have been left out in the cold.

But to do so, unions also have to realise this is where the main game is — fighting for the low-paid, vulnerable and exploited — not spending members’ hard-earned fees on robocalls about Medicare and other political campaigns to support the ALP.

NONE of this should be seen in any way as a get out of jail card for crooked employers. They need to be punished and the laws need to be tightened to prevent them from getting away with it.

But we cannot wait for governments to act, and we certainly can’t rely on business doing the right thing.

As consumers, we need to make ourselves part of the solution. As consumers we have the power to demand change.

As a consumer, you are entitled to know that staff are being employed under a legal agreement, and are receiving penalty rates and other basic conditions. If the business won’t tell you, don’t patronise them.

It also means the days of easy profits are coming to an end for those businesses built on this exploitative model. But it also means accepting that ending the endemic of wage fraud won’t come without a cost to consumers.

Ultimately, we as consumers, have to be prepared to make a sacrifice and accept that the days of ultra-cheap pizza home deliveries are over.

We have to be willing to take an extra hit in our hip pocket, pay a couple of dollars extra for the convenience that home-delivered pizza so that the workers who provide these services are properly paid.

Ending wage theft means casting aside our own self-interest for the good of society. For consumers, the day of reckoning has arrived.

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