Why the cops arenít chasing the biggest theft in the country

Why the cops arenít chasing the biggest theft in the country

What do you think of when you think of theft?

Maybe you think of car theft. Maybe you think of an elderly woman having her purse snatched on the street. Maybe you think of someone shoplifting at a grocery store. Maybe your mind turns to the ram raids dominating headlines in recent months. Maybe you live on Castle Street and you recall all your booze being stolen after the last flat party. Or perhaps you’ve been listening to lots of podcasts recently, and know that Bernie Madoff orchestrated the largest Ponzi scheme in history over a number of years which ended up costing investors around 18 billion USD in total.

The thing is, all these property crimes pale in comparison to the biggest type of theft, one that doesn’t make front page news in the way ram raids do. The police aren’t sending teams of cops to raid the perpetrators. Not a single person is going to jail. For these crimes to be resolved, the victim has to make a claim themselves, and there’s no guarantee it’ll be successful. Even if it is, there might not be a fine for the perpetrator. And everyone more or less knows it’s happening. It’s not physical theft:  it’s wage theft.

In the United States, all other property crimes (burglaries, robberies, auto theft, etc) total 13 billion USD in stolen value, which pales in comparison to the 20-60 billion USD stolen via wage theft. Wage theft happens when an employer doesn’t pay an employee their legally required wages and benefits, and while we don’t have any good estimates we know it happens a lot in Aotearoa – especially in the hospitality industry.

Companies everywhere from standalone restaurants in small towns to big chains like Burger King and Domino’s have gotten in trouble for breaching employment law. The ODT reported last week that two employees of Elements Therapeutic Massage Ltd, which used to be in Meridian Mall, were underpaid $12,740 over a six-month period. Both employees were also harassed and threatened by the manager while they worked there. The New Zealand Post Primary Teachers’ Association has said it is currently exploring legal action to support after-hours arts teachers after it was revealed they are getting paid less than minimum wage.

Even when employers are ordered to pay, employees who have been cheated out of tens of thousands of dollars often just have to hope they eventually see that money. The former owner of Romeeco Bakery and Knox Cafe in Dunedin was ordered to pay $400,000 to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) after his staff, who often worked 80-hour weeks, were grossly underpaid and violently threatened by him. Years later, the workers are still waiting on their compensation. 

Jenny Christall, who worked as night manager at Blenheim’s Quality Hotel, is owed $148,563 by her former boss for unpaid wages - and she’s been waiting on it for almost three years now. The ERA ordered her employer to pay up, but without much enforcement power it was easy for the company to just flat-out refuse. Her boss then sold the hotel and liquidated his company, and Jenny was left waiting. She’s still waiting.

Migrant workers have it even worse. A recent government inquiry showed the massive scale of migrant exploitation, which in some cases amounted to modern slavery. Employment Relations Minister Michael Wood has introduced anti-slavery legislation that would go a long way in tackling modern slavery domestically and in international supply chains, but the fact that “anti-slavery legislation” is something that needs to be introduced in 2022 is absurd.

A study in Australia found that migrant workers alone lost 1 billion AUD to wage theft. In 2016, the Council of Trade Unions found that $35 million had been paid back to employees after holiday pay “errors” from that year, but that’s just holiday pay wage theft, and even that is only the successful cases where employees chose to fight against their employers in front of the ERA and were lucky enough to win. The total stolen value is likely much higher.

And yet, none of this is surprising, is it? Chances are you, or someone you know, has experienced wage theft in one way or another. Maybe you weren’t paid properly for overtime, for your training period, or for work you had to get done at home. Or you got pay docked for breaks you never actually took, or for meals that customers didn’t pay for, or for broken glasses. You might not have been paid all of the holiday pay you should have, or maybe your employer skimped out on their Kiwisaver contributions. Maybe you’ve noticed your wages just didn’t add up that week. You might have questioned yourself, maybe you miscalculated, but after double checking you brought it up with your manager and they said sorry, must’ve been a payroll error, and given you the full amount. Issue resolved, but how many times has it happened and you just didn’t notice?

We’re so used to minor wage theft like this that we don’t even think about it as a crime – and it’s not. While wage theft involves breaking the law, and there are processes to enforce that law, it is not considered a criminal offence.

The way our legal system is designed means that the most widespread theft under the law isn’t treated as a crime. But it isn’t the only widespread theft that the legal system has enabled. Indigenous rights activists have long fought for whenua to be returned to mana whenua, after it was stolen throughout colonisation alongside natural resources and taoka. The legal system Aotearoa has today was designed by the same groups colonising that land, so it’s not surprising that “colonisation” isn’t listed under the Crimes Act – but we literally do not have the print space to discuss land theft in depth right now.

There are also plenty of things that the legal system does consider a crime that I would wager most of the country doesn’t think we should be throwing people in jail for; like growing and smoking cannabis, dumpster diving, picking psychedelic mushrooms, or not telling MSD you’ve started dating someone if you’re on a disability benefit. Yet they remain crimes, even if their enforcement may not be a cop’s top priority. 

While it was decriminalised in the 70s, abortion was still part of Crimes Act until 2020. Covid has been in Aotearoa longer than legal abortions have! When Lorde’s Royals was released in 2013, same-sex marriage wasn’t legal in New Zealand yet. Before 1986, a husband legally could not be convicted of raping his wife, but men having consensual sex with other men was still a criminal act in Aotearoa. In fact, it’s still not legal throughout the Realm of New Zealand – in the Cook Islands, sex between men remains a crime to this day.

Here's where it gets opinionated. I’m by no means trying to suggest that there aren’t crimes people commit that are morally wrong. Nor am I suggesting that we should be throwing half the employers in the country in jail. What I want to make clear is that while the list of things that are illegal, the list of things that people get arrested for, and the list of things that are harmful to society certainly overlap, they are by no means all the same list.

We need to rethink what we consider crimes, and our priorities for how we go about dealing with people that commit these crimes. It’s worth asking ourselves what the goal of our criminal justice system is. Is punishment really the point? And is that what is best for everyone? 

This article first appeared in Issue 23, 2022.
Posted 7:49pm Sunday 18th September 2022 by Elliot Weir.