HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsBeware of wage theft, you can be the victim too

Beware of wage theft, you can be the victim too

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guest column:Emmanuel Zvada

WAGE theft is no longer only a private sector phenomenon, but has extended to the public sector where many workers have mismatched salaries vis-à-vis efforts or being promised a pie in the sky in terms of wages. Millions of workers lose billions in stolen wages every year. Workers of all types can fall victim to wage theft, hence it’s a subject that needs to be unpacked.

Wage theft covers a variety of infractions that occur when workers do not receive their legally or contractually promised wages. It normally happens if an employer doesn’t fully and honestly pay an employee for their labour. There is a huge gap between the cost of living and the cost of labour.

The number of workers going for months without wages or with mismatched wages is on the rise, contributing to the disintegration of the families, higher rates of poverty and greater numbers of the working poor. The cost of living has gone up, the chances of living have gone down and the wages do not match the efforts due to minimum wage violations.

What is wage theft?

Wage theft refers to any activities, actions or practices that prevent workers from receiving their lawfully earned or contractually promised compensation. In other words, wage theft can mean the non-payment or underpayment of earned wages to employees by employers.

Wage theft occurs in situations where workers do not receive minimum wages or overtime wages, failure to pay workers their final paycheck, misclassifying employees in terms of grading to avoid paying actual wages. When employers get away with wage theft, it creates an unfair advantage over honest employees, hence employee complaints and wage claims should be promptly and carefully attended to.

The Labour Act
Section 6 of the Labour Act speaks to the protection of employees’ right to fair labour standards, it states that: “No employer shall pay any employee a wage which is lower than that specified for such employee by law or by agreement made under this Act.”

In Section 12, the Act goes on to obligate the employer to provide particulars of the employee’s remuneration, the manner of its calculation and the intervals at which it will be paid.

Section 12A states that remuneration payable in money shall not be paid to an employee by way of promissory notes, vouchers, coupons or in any form other than legal tender.

These provisions and sections of the Labour Act clearly spell out the obligation of the employer in terms of remuneration, how it should be paid. Failure to abide by the Act becomes an unfair labour standard in form of wage theft.

Common forms of wage theft
Paying below minimum wage: Minimum wage violations, in particular, are most prevalent in the industries that employ a lot of low-wage workers like service industries. Statutory Instrument (SI) 81 of 2020, which may be cited as the Labour Relations (Specification of Minimum Wages) (Amendment) Notice, 2020 (No 15), specifies a minimum wage.

According to the SI, an employer cannot just decide not to pay employees minimum wages. It will be deemed wage theft. The employer may apply to the appropriate national employment council (NEC) for exemption from paying the minimum wage, stating the reasons. If an employer is not regulated by an NEC, an application shall be made to the Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare minister and exemptions will be granted on the basis that the employer provides non-monetary benefits of a quantifiable value to his or her employees.

Non-payment of overtime: Overtime disputes are common between employers and workers, with employers wanting free labour and workers wanting to make more money through overtime. The normal eight-hour working days, lunch breaks, and overtime compensation all stem from wage and hour provisions. Limitations on how long an employee can be required to work and how much they must be paid for exceeding those limits must be discussed.

Overtime provides your employees with a source of supplemental income without having to spread their loyalty to other employers. However, problems arise when the overtime is not paid. Unpaid overtime can lead to a lot of tension within the company. So, make sure that if you do introduce it, you can afford to pay the employees.

Not paying a worker at all: Failure to pay what workers are legally entitled to is wage theft, where employers will be taking money that belongs to their employees and keeping it for themselves. This is a clear violation of international labour standards, as well as national legislation.

Notably, this violation of the right to be paid for one’s work is common in Zimbabwe. While government institutions in Zimbabwe are complicity in these violations, top managers continue to receive high salaries and generous benefits. Wage theft is endemic, and no group of workers is immune, including workers earning good wages.

The impact of wage theft
Wages play a fundamental role in the distribution of income and reduction of poverty and economic growth. Wage theft results in a host of problems such as growing inequality, social exclusion, a rise in crime or even social and political unrest and mass demonstrations. Because of wage theft, workers fail to access medical insurance and the cost of hospital care and medication becomes out of reach for the workers.

Many will be forced to rely on faith healers, prophets or traditional healers. Any deduction that brings an employee to a level of compensation lower than minimum wage is illegal.

Workers may walk to work to reduce transportation costs, requiring them to get up before dawn to be able to make it to work by 8am which is not good.

Recommendations
Can you sue a company for wage theft and how do you report wage theft are some of the questions that many employees might have. There are two main routes that workers can use to try to recover wages that were stolen. The first path is direct action — getting a group of workers to confront their employer. The second route is through lawsuits.

I also feel that the Labour ministry, together with representatives of employers and unions, should continuously review the status of companies that are not paying their workers and assist in developing plans to rectify the injustice. There should be a separate body that ensures that companies are paying actual wages as ripple effects of wage theft negatively affect the economy at large. Trade unions should monitor non-payment of wages and other worker rights abuses, making use of works councils and education of workers about their rights.

A comprehensive solution for this problem requires addressing the broader economic and political crises in Zimbabwe. But government and unions should prioritise immediate action to counter wage theft especially during this COVID-19 era, where even performing companies are hiding behind the curtain of the pandemic.

A sustainable solution will only be possible if the government develops policies that bring Zimbabwe out of the current economic crisis. Accept it or deny it, these policies must include a national employment policy that ensures fare wages for all workers in Zimbabwe and stipulates a penalty for those involved in wage theft.

Wage theft, worker rights and workplace discrimination should not be swept under the rug.

Meanwhile, if you check three professionals with same qualifications and experience, one working for the government, another a private company and the third a local non-governmental organisation, you will see huge discrepancies in wages. I also think that if possible, those responsible should revoke SI 142 of 2019, to save employees, employers and general Zimbabweans from the current economic tragedy.

In fact it seems as if Zimbabwe is reverting to multi-currencies via the backdoor. Let us face the reality and address the real questions for us to find genuine solutions.

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