Wage theft

For free and confidential legal advice about this topic, please contact us here. 

Wage theft is any underpayment of wages by an employer. It can include things like paying less than the minimum wage, failure to pay overtime, or not giving the employee other entitlements like leave or superannuation. It is against the law for your employer to not pay you what you’re owed. There are things you can do to recover stolen wages.

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What is wage theft?

1 in 5 young people are being underpaid by their employer. Any time your employer intentionally doesn’t pay you what you are entitled to – for example, the minimum hourly rate for your job, overtime, weekend penalty rates or superannuation, it is wage theft. It’s called wage theft because it’s considered the same as stealing. Unfortunately, this is very common in Australia, particularly in hospitality, construction and retail work. Wage theft also affects young people, women and migrant workers more than any other group.

Sometimes wage theft can be obvious – for example, being paid less than $24.10 an hour which is the minimum wage in Australia (although it may be less if you’re on a junior rate). Sometimes it’s not as clear – perhaps you’re not receiving extra money for working past 10pm in a pub, or perhaps you’re being asked to work overtime and not being paid overtime rates. All of these are forms of wage theft.

How do I know if I’m being underpaid?

All employees in Australia must be paid a minimum wage for the job they’re doing. The minimum wage will change depending on your job, your industry, how you’re employed – e.g., if you’re an apprentice or a casual, and even your age. There will also be other payments you may be entitled to, like superannuation and leave, or penalty rates for working weekends.

For more information on what you should be paid, see our page on pay. This page has information on how much you should be getting paid, and how to figure out if you’re being underpaid.

Example: wage theft  

Stella is 22 years old. She’s studying at uni, but also works behind the bar at a pub in the city. She is paid $25 an hour cash in hand. She usually gets $40 an hour on public holidays, but she doesn’t receive any extra pay for working late nights or weekends. She’s also not sure if she should get extra money for being a casual. When she asked her boss about it, she told her not to complain.

According to the Hospitality Industry (General) Award, Stella should be paid at least $31.23 an hour as a ‘level 2’ casual. She should also be getting at least $37.47 an hour on Saturdays, $43.72 an hour on Sundays, an extra $2.72 an hour after 7pm, and at least $62.45 an hour on public holidays. Stella is experiencing wage theft, and can make a complaint to the Fair Work Ombudsman.

Is there a difference between underpayments and wage theft?

Any underpayment is against the law, however sometimes underpayments are due to a misunderstanding by the employer and can be easily fixed. Often though, it’s a case of wage theft by an employer, which is the intentional underpayment of wages by an employer, and is particularly widespread in hospitality, retail, construction, horticulture and the higher education sector. The Federal Government has recognised how common wage theft is in Australia and will be making intentional wage theft a criminal offence nationwide in 2025.

Wage theft - international students and temporary visa holders

Unfortunately, wage theft is particularly common for international students and temporary visa holders, with 77% of international students reporting that they have been paid less than the national minimum wage in their casual jobs. Many workers on temporary visas know that they’re being underpaid, but are scared to speak up, believing they have done something wrong for accepting the job, or that perhaps there will be problems with their visa if they say something about their pay.

If you are working on a temporary visa and are being underpaid, you can contact the Fair Work Ombudsman for advice or support and won’t get into any trouble, even if you’ve breached your visa work-related conditions, like working more hours than you’re supposed to. This is because the Department of Home Affairs and the Fair Work Ombudsman have created something together called the Assurance Protocol. Under this protocol, the Department of Home Affairs has agreed not to cancel your visa even if you have breached its work-related conditions, provided you have sought advice or support from the Fair Work Ombudsman about the underpayments.

For more information about the Assurance Protocol and to find out if it applies to you, you can visit the Fair Work Ombudsman website here.

We have more information specifically for international students which you can find here: International Students: workplace rights.

What can I do?

If you believe you’ve been a victim of wage theft:

  1. Check how much you should have been paid, using the Fair Work Ombudsman’s Pay and Conditions Tool. This tool will help you figure out how much you should be paid, including for things like weekend work and overtime.
  2. Speak to your employer, your supervisor, your manager or HR manager about it, if you feel comfortable to do so. Have the details from the PACT tool ready to show them. Speaking directly with your employer will help you to figure out if there has been a misunderstanding, or if it’s a case of wage theft. You can practise having a difficult conversation in the Fair Work Ombudsman’s Difficult conversation in the workplace course here.
  3. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking directly with your employer, you can write them a letter or email, stating the rates that you are entitled to under the award.
  4. Record your hours, using the ‘Record my hours’ app from the Fair Work Ombudsman. This is especially important if your employer doesn’t keep proper records of all your hours, which may be causing some of the underpayments.

It is important to know that your employer cannot take adverse action against you, which could mean things like firing you or demoting you, for making an enquiry about your pay.

If talking to your employer does not solve the issue, there are further steps you can take, including:

  • Getting help from your union if you are a union member;
  • Writing a letter of demand;
  • Making a complaint to the Fair Work Ombudsman who may be able to investigate and take enforcement action, or
  • Taking legal action in court to recover unpaid wages.

Generally, you have 6 years to make a complaint about underpayments at work.

Further help

Get free and confidential legal advice  

If you think that you may have been underpaid, we strongly encourage you to contact us here for free and confidential legal advice about next steps that you can take.  

Fair Work Ombudsman  

You can contact the Fair Work Ombudsman about pay rates and entitlements. You can contact the Fair Work Ombudsman online, or call them between 8am – 5:30pm Monday to Friday on 13 13 94.

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