Sunshine Coast hospitality worker Tara Small is advocating for the criminalisation of wage theft in Queensland.
Sunshine Coast hospitality worker Tara Small is advocating for the criminalisation of wage theft in Queensland.

Young worker fights for imprisonment of wage ‘thieves’

A young hospitality worker on the Coast is calling for the criminalisation of wage theft in the state after she was left exploited and underpaid by previous employers.

Public hearings into Queensland's proposed wage theft laws began on Monday after the bill was introduced in July.

Coast resident Tara Small was among several workers at the hearing to share her story, with the goal of enabling the prosecution of wage theft as stealing under the Criminal Code.

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The United Workers Union's Hospo Voice member said her first encounter with exploitation in the workplace began when she became an event manager in Noosa at 18.

"I was told starting out that I had to work for free," she said.

"I wasn't going to get paid until I proved myself within the industry.

"This is not right. I worked hours, I worked 12-14 hour days, days on end at events without getting paid."

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At the same time, Ms Small said she also started a job as a barista at a small cafe.

"I was being underpaid there by $5 an hour with no holiday pay, no weekend pay," she said.

"I still haven't been paid super from that employer either.

"I tried to fight for what I was owed. But I didn't have proper pay slips, I had no idea how to make my bosses pay, and I didn't have the money to go to court. Eventually, I gave up.

"As a young person in the hospitality industry, I didn't know where I could turn to, I didn't know what I could do."

Sunshine Coast hospitality worker Tara Small.
Sunshine Coast hospitality worker Tara Small.

Although the 22-year-old accepted she would never be reimbursed the lost wages, she wanted to be a voice for those who had experienced the same mistreatment.

"I feel really angry that I've been exploited and underpaid," she said.

"It makes you question their morals, and wonder how they can sleep at night knowing they're stealing from people.

"Working in hospitality is my passion, so I want to make sure wage theft doesn't keep happening to me or anyone else.

"I want the hospitality industry to be a safe space where people can make a career without fear of not being paid, or not having proper wages."

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Ms Small said seeing the proposed bill go through would mean a lot to young hospitality workers.

"It would mean we don't have to be scared about using our voice," she said.

"We wouldn't have to be scared about stepping up and worried about getting back what we're owed.

"Strong wage theft laws will give us a voice, and give us the freedom to stand up to our bosses to be paid fairly.

"Now we need the Queensland Parliament to pass strong laws too, so wage thieves go to jail, and it's quick and easy to win back what we're owed.

"These laws need to pass for the future of the industry."

The Education, Employment and Small Business Committee is due to table its report on the bill by August 28.