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Louisa McCarthy has been in the workforce for less than two years but has already organised two strikes and secured award rates and payslips for her colleagues.
The 20-year-old university student works at Mint My Desk, a chain stationery store that sells animal-shaped backpacks and pastel-coloured keyboards, with 18 stores nationally.
Louisa McCarthy at her home in Brisbane.Credit: Glenn Hunt
Hired in early 2022, McCarthy quickly realised she was not being paid correctly. She said she was missing up to $10 an hour, was not paid weekend rates, casual loading or superannuation, and did not receive payslips. She estimates being owed $10,000 in underpayments.
Some colleagues, she said, were being paid as little as $18 an hour cash-in-hand. She spoke to management but alleges they said the company was too new to increase rates.
“I [couldn’t] believe they were being so blatant that they don’t want to pay us correctly,” she said.
Alongside colleagues, she formed the Mint My Desk Workers United, organising for Queensland employees to walk off the job twice in September.
“We wanted to do a grassroots campaign that was about sticking up for ourselves,” McCarthy said, adding existing unions wanted to focus on arbitration over immediate action.
“It’s relatively easy to find another retail job, but that just enables these companies – what kind of standard does that set?”
The company has since started paying award rates and providing payslips, and is currently being investigated by the FWO for back pay.
There is no suggestion that the underpayments were deliberate.
The Mint My Desk website states the company “is an employer which takes its legal obligations to its employees most seriously”, with underpayment concerns urgently considered.
“If there have been any mistakes made, then they will be urgently rectified,” the website states.
The company has been contacted for comment.
- Starbucks backpay $4.5 million: The coffee chain failed to pay overtime, annual leave and public holiday entitlement to its workers. The Fair Work Ombudsman noted many of its staff were young workers. Starbucks self-reported its underpayments in 2020.
- Company fined $550,000 for ‘obnoxious’ exploitation of migrants: Last week Sydney-based company Winit (AU) Trade Pty Lt was fined for deliberately and systematically underpaying migrant employees. The court ruled the Hong Kong-owned warehousing and distribution company behaved in an “obnoxious” manner, with employees mostly paid a flat hourly rate of $24.41 despite regularly working up to 60 to 70 hours per week.
- Most Melbourne eateries underpay their staff: A major FWO investigation found 86 per cent of businesses inspected across Melbourne’s food precincts breached workplace laws. The Ombudsman recovered $684,543 for 1004 underpaid workers in the last financial year.
The Fair Work Ombudsman has recovered more than half a billion dollars worth of unpaid wages and entitlements in the past year, even as employers face criminal penalties for deliberate underpayments under proposed legislation.
The ombudsman received over 14,000 anonymous reports in 2022-23 – 1600 more than the previous year – and recovered $509 million for nearly a quarter of a million workers.
Starbucks was found to be underpaying its staff. Credit: Bloomberg
Young employees submitted the majority of anonymous reports, followed by visa holders, with half of all reports being about the hospitality and retail sector.
Youth Law Australia Senior Employment Solicitor Anastasia Coroneo said the amount of money recovered by the FWO would be the tip of the iceberg, with most underpaid young people unaware of their entitlements.
“A common trap is young people engaged as part-time workers when they’re casual employees … or workers told to set up an Australian Business Number, when the rate that they’re being paid falls below the equivalent in the award,” she said.
The service received 164 enquiries from workers aged under 25 regarding underpayment in the past financial year – nearly double compared to the year prior.
Mint My Desk was the target of protests for alleged underpayment. Credit: Tony Moore
Secretary of Unions NSW Mark Morey said wage theft was ramping up to pre-COVID levels as high inflation pressured companies to slash costs.
“With businesses under pressure with interest rates going up, there’s a push for them to move the cash-in-hand payments,” he said.
Last month the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association launched a $150 million class action against grocery retailer Aldi for allegedly directing staff to work up to 30 minutes before their shift without pay between 2017 and March this year.
It follows a court ruling last year that an Aldi distribution centre in NSW underpaid workers $10 million in the same manner.
Amen Rastakhiz, who worked at the NSW Prestons distribution centre between 2018 and 2020, said he was expected to set up and check the technical components of his equipment before his shift began.
He was back paid about $2000. As a worker in his early 20s, Rastakhiz said he did not know about his worker rights until the union contacted him.
“I think [employers] take advantage of the situation and what workers do and don’t know,” he said.
An Aldi spokesperson said the company had since hired external auditors to assess over 10 million shifts, had back paid workers and amended its processes to ensure that employees are paid based on punch times.
Analysis of Fair Work Commission, Grattan Institute and PwC data by progressive think tank the McKell Institute found Australian workers were being underpaid between $847 million and 1.35 billion annually, costing more than $330 million in economic activity.
Louisa McCarthy helped fight for her fellow Mint My Desk employees to get their full pay.
The August study found Sydney was Australia’s wage theft capital with $25 million owed, while NSW accounted for almost one-third of lost wages.
The McKell Institute’s chief executive officer Ed Cavanough said cost-of-living pressures had a “significant impact” on people’s ability to risk shifts or roles by speaking up about payment issues.
“That fundamental dynamic and that power imbalance is still there and leaves room for the minority of unscrupulous employers to push the boundaries,” he said.
Business groups have blamed the complexity of the modern award system for underpayments, with more than 120 industry or occupation awards nationally.
“This is clear from the range of organisations which have made underpayments, including government departments, universities, not-for-profit organisations, major companies and even leading industrial relations law firms,” Business Council of Australia chief executive Bran Black said.
The government has proposed a suite of industrial relations reforms, including criminal penalties for deliberate underpayment.
A spokesperson for Minister for Industrial Relations of Australia Tony Burke said the reforms would make Australia a fairer place for workers.
“If a worker steals from the till, it’s a criminal offence – as it should be. But in many parts of the country, if an employer steals from a worker’s pay packet, it’s not. It’s time to end this double standard once and for all,” the spokesperson said.
The Closing Loopholes Bill has been referred to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by February 1, 2024.
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