Foley thanks UOW student for ‘bringing black market out of shadows’

Jessica Smith (left) from San Churro Wollongong chats with Ashleigh Mounser, NSW Labor Leader Luke Foley and Wollongong MP Paul Scully during Monday's talks about worker exploitation. Picture: Robert Peet
Jessica Smith (left) from San Churro Wollongong chats with Ashleigh Mounser, NSW Labor Leader Luke Foley and Wollongong MP Paul Scully during Monday's talks about worker exploitation. Picture: Robert Peet

NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley has used a visit to Wollongong – ground zero in a widespread investigation into the underpayment of young workers – to reveal a bolstered Labor plan to eliminate exploitation.

Mr Foley visited the city’s San Churro Chocolateria on Monday morning, where he met with a handful of young workers and outlined a Labor government would implement additional compliance measures aimed at unscrupulous employers.

The move came a week after Mr Foley unveiled Labor’s five-point plan to outlaw the exploitation of young workers, including a new wage theft law that could put business owners who deliberately underpay their staff in jail.

[Read more: Worker underpayments ‘widespread’: businessman]

In addition to the existing plan, Labor has vowed to put businesses that break the law on a public “name and shame” register and make them ineligible to be part of future government contracts. 

“They won’t get a cent of business out of a government led by me,” Mr Foley said. 

Also part of the new suite of measures is the a requirement that businesses publicly display the minimum wages of staff alongside their business registration.

Displaying award rates was first raised by South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris, and revealed by the Mercury, in March. 

It’s the spotlight that Ashleigh [Mounser] put on this issue here in the Illawarra that brought the black market out of the shadows.

Luke Foley

The latest political action comes in the wake of a Fairfax Media investigation that revealed the widespread underpayment of staff, predominantly young university students, in Wollongong hospitality and retail businesses.

Mr Foley praised University of Wollongong student Ashleigh Mounser, who spoke out in August last year, becoming the face of the probe and the voice for exploited workers.

“It’s the spotlight that Ashleigh put on this issue here in the Illawarra that brought the black market out of the shadows,” he said.

“I’ve always said that the best disinfectant is sunlight. We need a public debate around what’s going on here.”

Mr Rorris described Labor’s proposed reform as “the future of industrial relations and compliance, and action against wage theft”.

“It does not absolve the current government … from acting now,” he said.

“We say to the NSW government it’s time to step up to the plate, we can not afford our young workers to be exploited like this any longer.”     

Wage theft laws ‘better if enacted now’

The face of a comprehensive investigation into the underpayment of young Illawarra workers has welcomed a Labor pledge to tackle the issue, but said more immediate action was needed.

A year ago, University of Wollongong student Ashleigh Mounser took to Facebook to vent about her experience of being ripped off. 

Ms Mounser was then inundated with similar tales, prompting her to compile an initial list of 67 young people. 

The list formed part of a two-month Fairfax Media investigation into the underpayment of young workers aged 18 to 24, which uncovered claims of exploitation in cafes, restaurants and shops across the region.

Fast forward to today and Ms Mounser’s actions have led to Fair Work Ombudsman raids of 80 NSW businesses, and helped guide what’s become an eight-point Labor Party plan to eliminate worker exploitation.

Ms Mounser welcomed Labor’s plan – which includes the criminalisation of wage theft, widened powers of inspectors and a public “name and shame” register – saying it addressed many of the issues uncovered.

However, she said the region’s workers couldn’t wait for the election of a NSW Labor government and action was needed “right now”.   

“It’s a good plan. I think if it was implemented today it would be an even better plan,” she said.

Ms Mounser said she was proud of the problems she helped uncover.

“I’m glad it’s been done and I was in a position to say something,” she said.

HOW THE WORKER PROBE UNFOLDED

  • AUGUST 2016: Student Ashleigh Mounser calls for stories of underpayment
  • DECEMBER 2016: Details of Fairfax probe revealed 
  • MARCH 2017: Fair Work raids 80 NSW businesses
  • JULY 2017: NSW Labor reveals five-point workplace plan