Annie's story was originally published in Megaphone, the journal. You can subscribe here to read more workers' stories: https://www.megaphonejournal.org.au/
Annie reached out to the Young Workers Centre when her boss stole over $30,000 from her. Here is her story.
From the outside it looked like any other newsagency on a suburban street: the upcoming Powerball jackpot, the day's headlines pressed into A-frames, rows of glossy, beautiful faces telling stories of tragedy. People going about their business. A façade, in the old parlance, concealing something much darker.
Annie was 19 years old when she started work at this unassuming newsagency in Carrum Downs. Everything started out seemingly normal. They said they'd start her out by doing some trial shifts in her first week, which seemed logical. They wanted to see if she could handle the work. The rate would be $15 an hour for the first week, which was fine because she'd heard that some places didn't pay at all for trial shifts.
But then the second week came, and the third, and the fourth, without an increase in her hourly rate. Fifteen dollars, regardless of weekday or weekend. No pay slip. No superannuation. No tax withheld, meaning she now has a debt with the ATO.
Life is hard at $15 an hour. The wolves are at the door and they're almost as hungry as you are. Annie was a student at the time, and study materials aren't cheap. Once food and rent are accounted for, there's barely anything left. Forget living your life: going out with friends, saving for a holiday, even treating yourself to something small to distract from the endless grind. Colour starts to fade from the world. Everything feels like a struggle.
After two years, with no hope of anything changing on its own, Annie spoke up. Exhausted by the razor's edge balancing act, she submitted a request to be paid what she was entitled to. She did so in writing.
And there her troubles truly began...
If the first crime committed was the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, the second was surely an employer issuing a performance warning to an employee after they demand to be paid properly. It's a story so old it should be in the Bible, and it's exactly what happened to Annie. Bogus claims of complaints against her by customers were levelled at her. In her own words: "I was constantly being yelled at, verbally abused and embarrassed in front of customers and colleagues whenever my boss was there and they also claimed that customers constantly complained about me."
Broken down by months of this treatment, she left. What she imagined would be a liberating experience was anything but. The stress and anxiety followed her out the door, unresolved. She had given two years of her life to an employer who was probably going to just do the same thing to someone else now. The injustice still clung to her, wrapped around her like strait jacket. She needed to be rid of it, properly.
She contacted Fair Work, who rejected her request for assistance. The injustice shadowing her grew stronger, mocked her, sought to envelop her entirely. But her anger grew at the same time.
Unable to afford a lawyer after years of having her wages stolen, she admits she was on the verge of giving up.
The only other place she could find that assisted young people in situations like hers was the Young Workers' Centre. Unlike Fair Work, the YWC are fighters. Cases like Annie's are unfortunately all too common, and the team of solicitors well-versed in wage theft (a term she had not thought to use, despite how obvious it later became) are able to do more for her than any government department.
Her case continues, but progress is being made. Her lawyers, Leon and Oanh, have calculated the total sum of her stolen wages at $30,000. Even this act of calculation can be so difficult for workers who do not have assistance.
Two weeks ago, Annie was able to tell her story in the hope that others do not have to suffer the way she did: she testified in front of the Senate Economics Committee's hearing on Improving Protections of Employees’ wages and entitlements: Strengthening penalties for non- compliance. She told the hearing:
I left the newsagency over a year ago and my case is ongoing, I am yet to see my unpaid wages. It is a slow and arduous process to win back my wages. We need tough wage theft laws nationally to deal with the root of the problem and provide a quick and accessible process for workers to recover their stolen wages.
It was an incredibly brave thing to do, and something that very few people would have had the strength to do after the ordeal she has been through.
Last week the Federal Government, as part of their Omnibus Bill, attempted to pass laws that would have poorly stopped wage theft. It turns out that Scott Morrison and Christian Porter were never actually interested in stopping wage theft as they abandoned the laws at the last minute.
These wage theft laws would have run counter to the ones being implemented in Victoria. The Victorian laws, fought for and won by workers, will be both an effective prosecution instrument and a deterrant for future wage theft. The Federal laws would have undercut them entirely. Employers would have been able to claim ignorance and get away with barely a slap on the wrist.
In Victoria we fought for strong wage theft laws that make a difference - this best practice legislation should now be the basis for uniform state based laws so that stories like Annie's aren't repeated time and time again around the country.