Books

Cover of book: Hard Labour: wage theft in the age of inequality

Ben Schneiders
Hard Labour: wage theft in the age of inequality

In recent years, it has felt as if wage theft stories break in the Australian media on a monthly basis. Ben Schneiders, an award-winning journalist with The Age, has been responsible for most of them. His reporting – often with colleague Royce Millar – has contributed to millions, even billions, in unpaid wages being returned to workers, many of them in low-paid sectors and often on temporary visas. It has been a remarkable public service – one that, in an effective system of industrial relations and workplace regulation, would not be necessary.

In Hard Labour, Schneiders’ first book, the journalist zooms out to understand and explain this deeply problematic phenomenon. Why is it that some of Australia’s largest and most prominent companies are seeking to rip off the lowest-paid, most-vulnerable workers? How is it that the system is allowing them to get away with it, unless brave workers speak out to dogged investigative journalists? And what can be done to fix this sorry state of affairs?

Schneiders begins with context. In recent decades, Australia has become a nation of inequality. We have not been this consistently unequal since the 1930s. The top 1 per cent of Australian households control more wealth than the bottom 60 per cent (more than 15 million people) combined. The pandemic has only made things worse. This “whirring, self-perpetuating inequality machine” is bad for our society and democracy.

The author acknowledges his intellectual debt to French economist Thomas Piketty, whose work on inequality provides the platform for Hard Labour. But a dense economic tome the book is not. “Rather,” Schneiders writes, “it seeks to provide some of the finer-grained detail of how inequality has increased, and how power relations have evolved between those with and those without wealth and power.”

Inequality is the cause and consequence of the steady undermining of labour regulation that has allowed wage theft and other forms of worker exploitation to flourish. A nation that once enjoyed a living wage for all and strong employment rights, buttressed by a healthy union movement, has experienced four decades of deregulation and privatisation, together with the erosion of workplace protections and labour-movement decline.

This trend began under Labor in the Hawke and Keating era and was turbocharged by John Howard. Even the contemporary Fair Work Act, enacted under Rudd in response to the Coalition’s rights-stripping WorkChoices platform, “carried over much of the neoliberal baggage of the previous 20 years”. It is extremely difficult to lawfully strike in modern Australia. Unions once represented half the workforce; they now represent just over one in 10 workers. “We’re losing, and we’re losing badly,” one union leader tells Schneiders.

Hard Labour is, in effect, a portrait of the consequences. Schneiders is an empathetic narrator and uses his platform to recount the human toll of Australia’s current workplace paradigm. Munir, a migrant worker in outer Melbourne, forced to work despite Covid-19 spreading within his workplace. Karki, a temporary visa holder from Nepal, working 80 hours a week at Rockpool, the height of Australian fine dining, and paid for only half of them. Burak, a Turkish student killed in an accident while working for UberEats in Sydney, only for his family to be denied a death-benefit claim. Jamon, a Malaysian computer engineer working on Australian farms and earning $3.50 an hour.

Schneiders uses these tragic human stories to illustrate wider structural problems. There are some rays of hope. Schneiders spends a chapter (“Duncan vs Goliath”) on the wage theft scandal at Woolworths, where a Brisbane trolley operator named Duncan took one of the biggest companies to the Fair Work Commission over underpayments – and won. Scandalously, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, one of Australia’s most powerful unions, had rubber-stamped enterprise agreements that left workers at major supermarket chains and fast-food outlets significantly worse off. Woolworths was just the beginning, with total underpayments across SDA-covered workplaces totalling more than $1 billion.

But more often, overcoming these injustices can be impossible for individual workers, often in a precarious migration situation, fighting ASX-listed companies or private equity firms headquartered in offshore tax havens. Except in the rare circumstances when the Fair Work Ombudsman takes an interest or Schneiders is on the case, workers are left alone to fight their battles through an inaccessible legal system. Hard Labour concludes by considering solutions. “None of this will be easy,” Schneiders admits, as he canvasses law reform, more robust regulatory authorities and a resurgence in grassroots organising. He highlights the good work being done by the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union, established as an alternative to the SDA. If there is one criticism of Hard Labour, it would be that this section is underdone – there is more to be said about the changes needed to address the rampant exploitation Schneiders so powerfully chronicles.

But that is a minor quibble over what is otherwise a remarkable work based on a decade of remarkable reporting. It is a damning book that exposes the toothlessness of our industrial relations system and the impunity with which multinational corporations exploit vulnerable workers. And it is a cry for action, for reform and change that might see Australia buck the global trend of increasing inequality.

For those who believe in a fairer Australia, Schneiders has done a great service. Hard Labour should be required reading for all those in positions of power. “It is a monumental task to rebuild the power of workers, to create democracy at work, to establish a more equal society, and to change society from below,” he writes. “But there is no alternative unless we want to live in a society of rising precarity, insecurity and inequality.”

Scribe, 208pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 15, 2022 as "Hard Labour: wage theft in the age of inequality, Ben Schneiders".

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