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Wednesday, 15 May 1985
Page: 1985

Senator DEVLIN —I address my question to the Minister representing the Minister for Social Security. My question refers to a problem which I believe to be widespread. It is that employers are hiring people and paying them under-award wages and then making them stay on unemployment benefits to top up their pay. The workers are told that if they do not follow this course they will lose their jobs. Once the worker does this he is breaking the law-and that stops him from coming forward to the Department of Social Security and telling the Department what is going on because he might be prosecuted. Would the Government be prepared to offer to such people immunity from prosecution in order to encourage them to come forward? At the same time will the Government look at introducing tough penalties for employers who force their staff to follow this unlawful course of action, so that the Government can get at the real culprits?

Senator GRIMES —I can understand Senator Devlin's interest in this matter, because all of us who come from Tasmania have heard stories and rumours about this practice occurring on the north-west coast of Tasmania in particular, an area where Senator Devlin lives. I understand that this sort of practice has been detected in other States. There is a problem, as Senator Devlin well realises. The people who are receiving unemployment benefits while working are in breach of the law, as are the employers who are paying below-award wages in these circumstances-and when they are paying them under duress to their employees, it causes a difficult situation indeed.

I have had discussions with Mr Howe, the Minister for Social Security, about this matter, and in particular about the possibility in such cases of providing an immunity to those who give information that leads to the detection of major breaches of the legislation. I understand that that matter would have to be considered on a case by case basis. Mr Howe is receiving legal advice at the moment as to in what circumstances such immunity could be given. But, as Senator Devlin says, I think it is a most undesirable practice. Apart from being illegal and apart from the pressure that is put on employees in these circumstances to work for less than award wages and, therefore, also to rob the public purse, the situation about which I have heard, and which also arises when people who are injured at work in such circumstances are not covered by workers compensation, adds to the difficulty. When I get a full answer from Mr Howe I will let Senator Devlin and the Senate know the details.