The ACTU’s annual Minimum Wages Case starting today will receive unprecedented support from state governments, church and welfare groups.

A Full Bench of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission begins hearings today on the ACTU’s claim for a $24.60 a week rise for 1.7 million award workers.

ACTU Secretary Greg Combet said that the case could be the last opportunity for a significant pay rise for low paid workers if the Howard Government’s Workplace Relations (Protection of the Low-Paid) Bill succeeded in becoming law.

“The Howard Government is trying to impose a real wage cut on all award workers in the case starting today and is seeking to prevent any future increases in award wages under its legislation introduced in Federal Parliament last month.

“Allowing for inflation at the current rate of 3%, the Howard Government’s argument for a rise of only $12 a week would result in a real wage cut for 1.7 million workers. After tax, the Government’s increase would be only $8.40.

“The unprecedented support for the ACTU’s case from all state and territory governments, church and welfare groups reflects widespread community concern about the growing wage gap between rich and poor in Australia,” Mr Combet said.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures released last week showed that since the Howard Government was elected in 1996, the real wage rise for a typical low paid worker was only 2.6%, compared to 7.9% for a typical high paid employee.

In today’s case, all state and territory governments will for the first time support a minimum increase of $18 a week. The Catholic Church’s Commission for Employment Relations will argue for a $24.60 increase in the Federal Minimum Wage. The Australian Council of Social Services will support a substantial increase.

The ACTU claim would increase the hourly rate of the minimum wage from $11.35 to $12. More than 80% of the workers who rely on the claim for their only pay rise earn less than $35,000 a year.