Big retailers should be held accountable for the unpaid wages bill of exploited cleaners in their supply chain

3 September 2018
New laws that would see big retailers like Myer, Coles and Woolworths held financially responsible for the exploitation of contracted and subcontracted cleaners are urgently needed, Maurice Blackburn Lawyers will tell a Senate inquiry today.

Maurice Blackburn principal lawyer Josh Bornstein, who will address the Senate’s Education and Employment Committee inquiry hearing in Melbourne this morning, said big retailers should not be able to use outsourcing to avoid legal responsibility for workers.

“Currently big companies are able to distance themselves from any responsibility for the cleaners that work on their businesses by outsourcing the work to intermediaries including labour hire companies and secondary contractors,” Mr Bornstein said.

“When cleaners are ripped off by underpayments or other wage exploitation, they try to recover their losses through these outsourcing companies, but too often these smaller enterprises fold, leaving the exploited workers with no option for redress.

“Our legal system hasn’t kept pace with the changes in the labour market. As a result we are seeing an unprecedented number of companies engulfed in wage theft scandals. This will continue until there is an overhaul of workplace laws.

“First and foremost, there needs to be a legal duty imposed on companies at the top of supply chains to be accountable for wage theft that occurs in that structure.

“What we need is for the big retailers at the top of the cleaning supply chain to know they can be held legally and financially responsible for any unpaid wages and entitlements for the cleaners that work in their business.

“If big retailers knew they could be sued by outsourced cleaners for unpaid wages that could total in the millions of dollars, it would provide a strong incentive to ensure that outsourcing does not reduce compliance with wage laws.”

Mr Bornstein noted that the outsourcing companies who tender for and win cleaning contracts often operate businesses that attract and employ the most vulnerable workers, including many women as well as workers born overseas.

“Maurice Blackburn is concerned that businesses which engage workers but shirk their legal responsibilities for proper pay and conditions are being given an unfair commercial advantage over businesses that play by the rules. There needs to be a rethink of Australia’s industrial laws to ensure that vulnerable cleaners are treated fairly at work, and companies are no longer engaging in a race to the bottom when it comes to these workers’ rights.”

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