Every year in the minimum wages case, even in these prosperous times, the ACTU has to fight off the federal government and employer organisationsto make sure low paid Australians arent left behind says ACTU Secretary Greg Combet.
Lately there’s been a lot of talk about how well the economy is going.
Unemployment is down, interest rates are still low and many of us feel
we’re doing ok.
But there are 1.6 million workers who live week to week, pay cheque by pay
cheque. They aren’t feeling the economic sunshine. They earn the lowest
wages in Australia and have no way to negotiate a better deal.
Every year, they rely solely on the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU)
to win them a pay rise through its Minimum Wage Case.
And every year, even in these prosperous times, the ACTU has to fight off the
federal government and employer organisations to make sure these Australians
aren’t left behind.
In a plush hearing room full of lawyers and economic argument, the real
meaning of the Minimum Wage Case is brought home by the testimony of the
witnesses – real people – telling us what it’s like to survive on $400 a
week or less.
Take the case of Glen D., who lives in a flat on the outskirts of Melbourne
with his wife and two small daughters. A full-time production worker, he takes
home $377 a week after tax.
The family’s expenses include rent, groceries, electricity, gas,
telephone, public transport, car repayments and school costs. Total cost: $506 a
Glen can’t afford a family trip to the cinema or McDonalds or a holiday
away from home. Emergencies such as a broken washing machine are a major
Glen’s wage alone is not enough to sustain his family and without a
small social security payment, there is no way they could make ends meet.
Another witness, Doreen T. is a therapy aide in a nursing home. She supports
her husband and son on $421 a week before tax. They rent a ministry of housing
flat, wear Op Shop clothes and have never been able to afford a family
To pay for daily essentials, Doreen has borrowed money. She has a credit card
debt and a personal loan. On a minimum wage she might never pay it off.
Doreen told the Wage Case hearing that when her TV broke down, it was 18
months before she could pay to fix it.
One employer group responded by saying a TV was merely an
“entertainment device”, not a necessity.
Despite such arguments, the ACTU managed to win workers an extra $17 a week
this year. The government was offering $12 – not even enough to keep up with
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) went one worse. They
argued for zero increase. In a period of robust economic growth, they were
effectively offering workers a pay cut in real terms.
The generous folk who make up the ACCI membership are the same executives who
award each other million dollar salaries and performance bonuses, as often as
not for doing a poor job.
They do not go without family holidays. They don’t have to save up to
fix the TV or washing machine. Considerately, their employees, people like
Doreen T. and Glen D., live on the city outskirts, largely invisible and easily
In 2004, the ACTU will argue for a minimum wage rise of $26.60 a week, to
bring the minimum wage to $12.50 an hour. The federal government and employers
are set to oppose this. Their message is that the low paid should be happy to
have a job, they shouldn’t expect a pay rise too.
However, there will be some pesky facts to deal with.
GDP growth has averaged around 4% for 10 years, adding more than $200 billion
dollars to the economy in real terms.
Employment has grown at 2.2% a year, creating 1.8 million extra jobs; average
earnings have increased by 4.2%.
Profits have grown at an average of 13.5% every year for a decade, 233% in
The economy has survived the Asian meltdown, the Japanese recession and
It’s hard to fathom how it would suddenly disintegrate under the strain
of a modest minimum wage rise.
Australia can well afford to look after these workers. There is no better
time for us to be aiming for a society that combines intelligent economic
management with fairness and greater equity.
Greg Combet, ACTU Secretary.