Is wage theft rife in New Zealand?

Report and commentary

Wage theft. Two words that make some people say ‘eh?’ and scratch their head.

Yes, it’s a thing and typically involves people doing work for their employer for free.

Sure, we all muck-in to help our employers when things slip – but working unpaid should not be normalized. People should be rewarded for the work they do.

For example, one retail chain – Smith City – was in the gun in May 2018 when it was pinged by the Employment Court for expecting staff to attend work-place meetings in their own time [judgment here]. The company expected staff to arrive at work 15 minutes early to attend sales meetings; and had been doing so for 15 years!

As these meetings were work related staff should have been paid for the time, said the court. And because the unpaid 15 minutes per day was not accounted for it meant some staff were paid below minimum hourly wage.

The company was ordered to pay back-pay to all staff who had worked at the firm in the 6 years up to the date of the court ruling.

And Smith City is no back-street minnow; at the time of the case it had 34 stores and employed 400 people.

In other cases the wage theft is more blatant; scoundrel employers simply pay staff less than the legal minimum wage or play games when it comes to holiday pay etc.

According to the Council of Trade Unions, workers were back-paid $35 million for holiday payroll ‘mistakes’ in 2017.

Now although I am aware of wage theft, I hadn’t come across it among anyone I know. Until this week. And it seems some employers simply don’t give a damn when it comes to pay and conditions.

A friend has arrived from the UK and is job hunting. They saw a job paying $30 an hour – the advertised pay rate was crystal clear on the job site. Called for an interview within hours of sending in their CV it became apparent during the meeting that the stated rate was more of a vibe than a clear offer.

Turns out it was an annual average based on an undeclared fixed hourly rate plus overtime. My job-hunting friend repeatedly asked what the base hourly rate was but the interviewer avoided answering the question.

Next up was an interview where the employer asked if he’d move to a location closer to their office. Not liking the polite refusal to move house, they then asked if he would move to the firm’s Christchurch base in a few years’ time. Again, the interviewer didn’t like the answer.

The job was apparently given to an existing member of staff instead. Was the interview a time-wasting tick-box exercise; with the firm already knowing which member of staff would get the job? Likely.

Yet another interview and this time the employer told my friend staff would be paid 8 hours a day but that they can expect to be out working for up to 14 hours a day.

I’ve got to hand it to the employer; they made it clear there would be no paid overtime and no accrued time / time off in lieu for working overtime. We did the math and discovered working 14 hours for 8 hours’ pay placed my friend below minimum wage.

Now I have digressed a little, but suffice to say that people with a little less backbone and wherewithal than my friend may have agreed to any of the conditions above just to get a job, to get a foot in the door.

Some employers are knowingly setting out to take advantage of job hunters – migrants being easy targets.

It appears at least some business owners get up in the morning knowing full well they will steal their employee’s time and money. Some employers even expect staff to pay back some of their wages as a kick back.