Call to beef up wage theft legislation

Legislation in South Australia needs to toughen federal and state laws to arrest wage theft, which is likely to be on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Flinders University law expert Associate Professor Marinella Marmo.

Coinciding with the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery (2 December 2021), Associate Professor Marmo is calling for urgent reform contained in key recommendations in the Final Report of the Select Committee on Wage Theft in South Australia, which has been tabled in the Legislative Council.

Flinders University Associate Professor Marinella Marmo, College of Business, Government and Law.

“These actions to create a Wage Theft Act in South Australia are long overdue,” says Associate Professor Marmo, who contributed to the parliamentary report and whose 2019 report into ‘Slavery and Slavery-Like Practices in South Australia’ investigates severe forms of exploitation akin to slavery-like practices in SA.

“Wage theft continues in Australia, particularly during times of economic uncertainty like we’re seeing through the pandemic.

“We need to take immediate action against cases of severe labour exploitation here – which often occurs in tandem with other indicators of forced labour including deception, abusive working and living conditions, and physical and sexual violence.”

Associate Professor Marmo also supports another key recommendation to modify the federal Modern Slavery Act 2018, which calls to:

  • Reduce the amount of consolidated revenue for the reporting period to an amount that would capture a greater number of businesses within Australia.
  • Make annual reporting on the risks of modem slavery in businesses operations and supply chains and actions to address those risks mandatory for businesses.

“But we can do better than this,” she says. “South Australia should follow the example of the NSW Modern Slavery Act, due to commence on 1 January 2022 – for which eligible victims of acts of modern slavery will be provided recognition payments under the Victims’ Rights and Support Act 2013 (NSW).”

The United Nations predicted a rise in all forms of modern slavery in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including incidents of forced marriage and forced labour.

Global profits from modern slavery and human trafficking are believed to exceed $150 billion, with the UN claiming slavery traps more than 40 million people around the world. Modern slavery affects one in four children around the world. Additionally, victims of modern slavery experience unimaginable suffering.

“It won’t be long until it reaches us in South Australia, as we open our international borders,” Associate Professor Marmo predicts.

The Final Report presented to the SA Select Committee also cites Associate Professor Marmo’s call for a “cultural shift” in South Australia, saying that systemic change needs to occur, rather than expecting victims of severe exploitation to take action and fend for themselves.

She says presumptions that a victim should speak up is not a realistic expectation, adding that migrants coming to South Australia will not necessarily know how to join the right union or NGO, know the relevant Australian laws, or even be able to communicate in their own language during disputes.

“Currently, while many may encounter exploitation, they don’t have the tools to recognise it or to apply the correct terminology against it,” says Associate Professor Marmo.

She identified a need to teach the next generation of South Australia’s police, nurses, lawyers, teachers and social workers to recognise exploitation and how it is embedded.

“The International Day for Abolition of Slavery is a reminder for us that modern slavery can be prevented with a little effort on all our part.”

#AbolitionOfSlaveryDay or #EndModernSlavery

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College of Business Government and Law