Australia government to introduce bill barring 'wage theft' Monday

FILE PHOTO: Australian gig workers to get right to negotiate minimum pay, conditions

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's Labor government will introduce legislation to close "loopholes" in workplace law, a move opposed by employer groups fearing higher costs, when parliament returns on Monday.

Workplace Minister Tony Burke said on Sunday he would introduce the bill making it a criminal offence to deliberately underpay workers, with a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail and a maximum fine of A$7.8 million ($5.0 million).

Penalties would not apply to employers who make honest mistakes, Burke said in a statement.

Details of the legislation have not been released. Burke said in a speech last week that in addition to criminalising "wage theft", the bill would make it easier for casual workers to gain permanent roles, scrutinise the use of labour hire firms to undercut minimum pay rates, and introduce minimum standards for "gig economy" workers, including in food delivery and rideshare apps.

He said on Sunday in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the impact on business would be minimal, although "there are some people who will have to pay more". Businesses with fewer than 15 employees would be exempt from some provisions, he said in a statement.

Business Council of Australia Chief Executive Jennifer Westacott called proposed changes "unworkable" on Friday, telling Sky News, "It's going to add to cost, add to complexity, make it harder to get casual work, make it harder to employ people".

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has said the law will restrict independent contracting and threaten the viability of online food delivery and rideshare services.

($1 = 1.5504 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by William Mallard)