One rule for some, jail for the rest

August 9, 2019
CFMMEU members at a Brisbane rally in 2017. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

You could be forgiven for thinking theft is suddenly socially acceptable given recent events — provided you act remorsefully after being caught. However, that acceptance only extends so far.

The Fair Work Ombudsman fined celebrity chef George Calombaris $200,000 for underpaying staff $7.8 million in wages.

In 2017 it was estimated that Calombaris’s wealth sat at $4.5 million, making him the sixth-richest chef in Australia at the time.

Most of the media focused on a fragile, contrite Calombaris talking about how much he loved his staff. Very little attention was paid to the employees who had their wages stolen.

Shortly after, the media reported on two restaurant owners in Sydney who were forced into liquidation after accruing $436,000 in debts. According to the owners, the business failed because they paid workers award wages — the minimum they are legally entitled to.

A Grade 2 food and beverage attendant — whose duties can include mixing alcoholic drinks, sales and assisting in a cellar or bottle department, general waiting duties, handling monies and delivery duties — on award wages earns $20.82 an hour.

They are the lucky ones: most workers in the hospitality sector receive less than the award wage and are often paid cash-in-hand, meaning they do not get basic conditions such as superannuation and paid sick and annual leave.

In 2013, construction company Grocon was fined $250,000 after a wall on one of its building sites collapsed, killing three people. In contrast, the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union was fined $1.25 million for protesting against Grocon’s attempts to undermine safety at a different site a year later.

There are countless examples of deaths at work caused by negligent employers or bosses basing their business model on wage theft. In each case, the small slap on the wrist for the few that are caught is essentially a green light for bosses to keep committing these crimes.

Meanwhile, Australia reached its highest ever-recorded prison population in 2017. The biggest contributors to this rise have been First Nations and women prisoners, along with those on remand.

Prisoners on remand are those held in jail while waiting to have their cases heard. Despite having not yet been found guilty of any crime, they represent 33% of the total prison population.

Over the past decade, the total number of women in prison has risen by 77%. The rise in incarcerated First Nations women accounts for most of this.

Under the existing justice system, society’s most marginalised receive harsher penalties than celebrity chefs who steal or bosses who kill. There are women in jail for doing drugs while employers guilty of manslaughter receive a fine.

The system is clearly unjust.

What little justice is extracted from it is largely due to campaigns, such as those by trade unions against wage theft and industrial manslaughter, and Sisters Inside, who are shining a light on women, particularly First Nations women, in the prison system.

These campaigns show that with collective action and solidarity, we can demand justice and win.

[Sarah Hathway is a union organiser and a member of the Socialist Alliance National Executive.]

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