Criminal Liability for 'Wage Theft': A Regulatory Panacea?
In response to concerns over the growing problem of ‘wage theft’, the federal government, as well as various state governments, have committed to introducing criminal sanctions for underpayment contraventions. While policymakers and the public have largely assumed that criminal sanctions will address a perceived deterrence gap and promote employer compliance with basic employment standards, there has been far less scholarly appraisal of how this regulatory shift might shape enforcement decisions and affect compliance outcomes. Drawing on literature from criminology, as well as regulation and governance, this article evaluates a range of conceptual justifications put forward in support of criminalising certain forms of wage theft. It also considers key practical issues which may arise in a dual track system where both criminal and civil sanctions are available for the same or similar contraventions. This article concludes with some suggestions on how criminal offences might be framed in the federal system so as to optimise employer compliance and reduce regulatory tensions.