Jeff Lawrence: Backing battlers

This week, I had the privilege of meeting three remarkable Australians.

None will ever hit a century for their country, win an Oscar, or make the Rich List, but Adam Smith, Lauren Woodbridge and Luzia Borges are part of what makes this country great.

Each is hard-working, honest, and all they want for themselves and their families is a happy and safe life.

Adam, Lauren and Luzia are among the 1.4 million Australians who are totally dependent on the award system to give them a safety net of wages and conditions.

Adam is a security guard. Lauren works as a food and bar attendant at an airport. Luzia is a cleaner. Without them, and people like them, this country would grind to a halt. The way of life we enjoy would not exist.

Each year, they hope for a few extra dollars in their pay packets after the annual review of minimum wages.

Last year, they received nothing. In the midst of an economic downturn, when they were working harder than ever, while seeing friends and family members lose their jobs or make other sacrifices, the so-called Fair Pay Commission (set up by the Howard Government as part of WorkChoices) handed down a wage freeze.

That sickened me then and it still angers me now.

Those workers include about 100,000 existing on the National Minimum Wage of $14.31 an hour, or $543.78 a week. That's $10 an hour less than average earnings.

The impact of that freeze was to cut real wages for most low-paid workers by $9.80 to $11.50 a week to the end of 2009. But that's not the full story.

Ask Adam, Lauren or Luzia what fair pay means: they'll tell you it means respect. Ask what it's like to be on minimum wages: they'll tell you it sucks. That it's difficult and it's tough.

"We were really looking to a pay rise last year because we know every cent, it counts for us and I'm sure everyone was very disappointed when we got nothing,'' Luzia, 57, a cleaner in Parliament House in Canberra, told me.

"Everybody is struggling to survive. I know I'm struggling, especially with my husband not working and I have to support him and myself on minimum wages.''

This week, the ACTU lodged its claim for the 2010 annual wage review by the new Fair Work Australia body.

It is for a rise of $27 a week -- or 71c an hour -- to lift the minimum wage to $570.78.

It would make a big difference to the lives of people like Adam, Lauren and Luzia.

For Lauren, 20, it may mean she could finally afford the $5 daily cost to park her car at the airport where she works, rather than having a hitch a lift from a distant car park each day.

"If I don't get paid more, it's just not worth working here,'' she says. "I would like to have some rainy-day money. When my car blew up I had to buy a cheap bomb. I'd like to have a car that's reliable.''

For Adam, who's 31 and rents with his father and a friend, it could mean a little more time spent away from work -- he depends on overtime to get by.

"If something goes wrong now, I usually do overtime to get that extra money,'' he says. "But overtime is inconsistent, which makes it hard.''

And for Luzia, maybe a night out or a new item of clothing. Life has been harder for her since her husband retired on a part pension and a daughter moved back home with three grandchildren.

She should be thinking of retirement, but she knows that on what she currently earns, she will have to keep working for many years to come.

"I take home $500 a week. You have to really budget. If you want to go out or anything you have to think twice, or if you want to buy something special you have to think twice because if you spend you don't have money to pay your bills,'' she says.

"It would make life a bit easier, especially to pay bills. The bills are going up and up and our wages are still the same, and we do struggle to pay our bills. As soon as you get a big bill you just think how am I going to pay it?''

Low-paid workers are resilient and resourceful. They don't want a "freebie''. They deserve a fair share.

Our wage claim of $27 includes an element of catch-up after last year's freeze. In truth, all it would mean is the maintenance of real wages.

Our claim is responsible. Australia's economic outlook is good and the recovery is in progress, but more importantly, the case for a pay increase is strong.

Without a catch-up in minimum wages, these low-paid workers will slip further behind -- increasing income inequality.

That is bad for the economy, bad for workforce participation, bad for productivity growth and bad for women and children, because 60 per cent of workers reliant on award minimum wages are female. More than that, the widening pay inequality is bad for our society.

Last year, the CEOs of each of our biggest companies took home an average of $2.3 million, despite a 24 per cent decline in the stockmarket. CEOs earn, on average, more than 40 times the average wage. In the case of someone like Adam, Lauren or Luzia, the difference is 70 times.

Frankly, it's time for the heads of Australian business to get out of their high-rise offices and meet the people who work hard so they can take home a few million dollars a year.

If they do -- and I doubt any of them will -- I challenge them to look Adam, Lauren and Luzia in the eyes and tell them they don't deserve a decent pay rise.

This article first appeared in the Sunday Herald Sun on 21 March 2010.