'It’s now a national issue’: ACTU boss praises Wollongong workers

ACTU secretary Sally McManus speaks during a visit to the University of Wollongong on Thursday morning. Picture: Robert Peet
ACTU secretary Sally McManus speaks during a visit to the University of Wollongong on Thursday morning. Picture: Robert Peet

The head of the country’s trade union movement has praised the bravery of young Wollongong workers who lifted the lid on widespread exploitation and wage theft.

Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary Sally McManus –  who was in Wollongong on Thursday to meet some of those workers – said their actions had sparked a national push to change workplace rules.  

A two-month Fairfax Media investigation into the underpayment of workers aged 18 to 24 – revealed in the Mercury in December –  uncovered claims of exploitation in cafes, restaurants and shops across the Illawarra. 

Read more: Wollongong student shines light on ‘rip-offs’

Hundreds of other young workers have come forward since the investigation, which is a driving force behind an Australian Unions’ campaign to ‘Change the Rules’ around rights at work.

“It’s been the brave, courageous young people in Wollongong that have taken this issue and have made it a national issue,” Ms McManus told the Mercury.

“It’s not an easy thing when you’re a causal, or when you’re a young person and you don’t know what your rights are ... to stand up and to say something’s wrong.”

Read more: Worker underpayments ‘widespread’ - businessman

Among those who met with Ms McManus on Thursday was Kiara Robinson, one of the 13 young workers spoken to as part of Fairfax Media’s ‘Great student swindle’ probe.

South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris, who has helped the workers, said Ms Robinson’s case would be “heading to court very shortly”.

“It’s not just the one case, we are talking about thousands of workers in this region and thousands of workers around the country,” Mr Rorris said.

Ms McManus called on the federal government to act.

“We want the rules to change so that it’s quick and easy for people to be able to recover wages if they’re not paid them properly,” she said.

“We think that should happen as a matter of justice; if you're entitled to something, you should be able to get it and if you’re not getting it, it should be easier to fix it.    

“At the moment it’s not and that’s why employers are doing it, because they can get away with it.”

The Mercury contacted Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash.