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This week Woolworths was accused of underpaying its staff by more than $1 million. It’s not the first time that large businesses have been in the headlines for such acts.
In June, BHP admitted to underpaying almost 30,000 Australian workers since 2010, which cost it more than $400 million to amend; in July, the University of Wollongong admitted to underpaying casual workers by $8 million, stretching back to 2016.
With complex pay structures and ever-evolving labour laws, ensuring that you’re actually getting paid properly can be incredibly challenging.Credit: Dionne Gain
While these payroll issues are largely due to clerical errors, it pushes questions such as “am I being paid correctly?” and “how do I have this conversation with my employer?” to front-of-mind.
Every employee deserves to be fairly compensated for their work and dedication. But with complex pay structures and ever-evolving labour laws, ensuring you’re getting paid properly can be incredibly challenging.
Whether you’re working full-time, part-time or casually, now is the time to take a more active approach in understanding your entitlements, so you know you’re being fairly paid – because if I know anything, it’s that from little things, big things grow. A few dollars here and there add up, not just at the end of each week but also when it comes to the big things in life, such as a healthy retirement fund.
Understand your status
The first step in ensuring fair pay is to know your employment status. Are you a full-time, part-time, casual or contract employee? Each category comes with rights and entitlements, such as minimum wage, leave benefits and overtime pay.
We have so many privileges getting to work in Australia, but that doesn’t mean you should put up with being taken advantage of.
Understanding your employment arrangement will help you to advocate for your rightful compensation and benefits. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is the Fair Work website. I am consistently singing its praises for being an accessible and easy-to-understand resource that you can use to know your rights on everything related to employment.
The next things I want you to get familiar with are the National Employment Standards (NES). While they don’t sound enthralling, they’re the foundation of fair pay and working conditions here in Australia.
The NES are the 11 minimum employment entitlements that have to be provided to all employees, regardless of what the employment contract says. The key elements of the NES are things like minimum wage, annual leave entitlements, personal leave and public holidays. By acquainting yourself with these standards, you’ll gain a solid grasp of your basic entitlements as an employee, which to me is really sexy.
The NES comprises minimum entitlements for employees in Australia. No other workplace instrument can undercut the National Minimum Wage or the NES – not awards, employment contracts, enterprise agreements or other registered agreements (which must be approved and registered with the Fair Work Commission).
Modern awards are industry-specific regulations that outline minimum pay rates and conditions for various occupations. This is where our friends at the Fair Work Commission have done an incredible job of making it straightforward for us to categorise ourselves – which until very recently wasn’t so simple.
On the Fair Work website is a tool called “Find My Award”, a three-step form to help you find the proper award that covers you – which I then use together with the Fair Work Pay Calculator, which calculates base pay rates, allowances and penalty rates (including overtime!) – it’s the tool that Infoline advisers use to answer enquiries when you call Fair Work.
Build your case
Now, let’s say you’ve done some research (which was easier than you thought it would be, hey?) and you’ve come to the unfortunate conclusion that your employer is underpaying you. What to do? Storm into your boss’ office and demand backpay?
No! – not only because that is far too confrontational for me personally, but also because now’s the time to get all one’s ducks in a row so as to get the best possible outcome. To achieve that, you must document, document, document. Download or get your hands on all of your payslips and be sure to maintain accurate and detailed records of your working hours, overtime and any leave taken.
If you believe you are being underpaid, once you have collated all your documentation, you’re ready and equipped to have a conversation with your employer about how to handle the situation. Having as much documentation as possible will limit the back and forth you might have and also make your argument as clear as possible so hopefully the conversation doesn’t have to go any further.
If your employer agrees that you’re being underpaid, that’s a fantastic outcome, but please ensure you receive backpay for the period of time that it was occurring. Fixing it for the next pay run is not enough, my friend – you deserve better than that, and you’re entitled to it.
Unfortunately, conversations about pay with employers are not always easy, and you’re probably going to want to have a few conversations with other experts before you go directly to your employer.
I’ve mentioned Fair Work’s website, but you can also call it on 13 13 94. If you have a union to talk to, this is an option I’d take up: a union can play an incredibly important role in the workplace. As a final resort, you can seek legal counsel.
I get it – it can feel overwhelming – but advocating for your rights as an employee is not only your right; it is what you deserve. And there are specific resources out there to support you.
Check your super
Did you think I’d forgotten to mention superannuation? Of course not (it’s my favourite tax structure!) and you shouldn’t forget about it either.
Since July 1, 2022, almost all employees have been eligible for the Superannuation Guarantee (or SG, as it often appears on payslips), regardless of their employment status. The current SG rate is 11 per cent (for 2023-24) and you can check if you’re entitled to SG and if your employer is paying the correct amount using the ATO’s Am I Entitled to Super? and Estimate My Super online tools to check your eligibility and SG entitlement.
Unpaid super is, sadly, a large and common problem. A recent Industry Super Australia report found nearly a quarter of the Australian workforce is owed $5 billion in unpaid super. At present, your employer is only required to pay your super entitlements on a quarterly basis, but from July 1, 2026 this will change and employers will be required to pay their employees’ super at the same time as their salary and wages.
If for some reason you’re not receiving regular SG contributions from your employer, this doesn’t just mean you might have less super in your account when it comes time to retire; it also means that you could be at risk of losing the insurance cover provided by most superannuation funds as part of your membership.
This is because super funds are required to stop providing insurance coverage if a member’s account doesn’t receive super contributions for 16 months or more – meaning you could be missing out on cover if illness or injury forces you to leave the workforce.
So please, please check your superannuation to make sure you’re being paid. And if you aren’t? Then have a conversation with your employer. If that doesn’t result in your superannuation being back-paid (with interest!), then report the unpaid super to the Australian Taxation Office.
We have so many privileges getting to work in Australia, but that doesn’t mean we should put up with being taken advantage of. You deserve to be fairly compensated for your contributions.
By understanding your employment status, familiarising yourself with the NES and modern awards, keeping detailed records and seeking advice when needed, you are ensuring that future you is in the best possible position – and that’s what I really care about.
Victoria Devine is an award-winning retired financial adviser, best-selling author and host of Australia’s No. 1 finance podcast, She’s on the Money. Victoria is also the founder and co-director of Zella Money.
- Advice given in this article is general in nature and is not intended to influence readers’ decisions about investing or financial products. They should always seek their own professional advice that takes into account their own personal circumstances before making any financial decisions.
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