Employer Arguments Against Minimum Wage Boost Don't Hold Water

The Fair Work Commission has announced an important increase in the national minimum wage, which will rise by $1.05 per hour (or 5.2%) effective 1 July 2022. This represents a significant shift in the debate over wages in Australia, whichi have been languishing for years -- and are now falling in real terms.

Even with this new increase, however, real wages for the lowest-paid Australian workers are likely to go backwards this year, with inflation pegged to accelerate to as much as 7%. Nevertheless, Australia's business lobby are repeating tired old complaints about minimum wages being too high, stoking further inflation, and undermining profits.

In his latest commentary, published in The Guardian, Policy Director Greg Jericho reviews and debunks these predictable complaints. The evidence is clear that wages are not causing inflation. Profit margins have grown along with prices. Workers deserve to have their real incomes protected, as the true sources of the problem (arising mostly from after-effects of the pandemic and the global energy price shock) are addressed.

Please see Greg's full column, "Workers and their wages are the collateral damage of the war on inflation."


Wages, Prices and the Federal Election

The recent federal election featured important debate regarding the rising cost of living in Australia, and whether and how wages should be boosted to keep up with higher prices. One exchange, late in the campaign, occurred when ALP leader Anthony Albanese stated his belief that wages should keep up with prices -- but then was strongly criticised for that view by Coalition leaders and some business commentators.

New exit poll results from the Australia Institute indicate that a very strong majority of voters (83%) in fact support the idea that wages should at least keep up with prices. This opinion was shared broadly across the political spectrum. Even 79% of Coalition voters supported lifting wages to at least keep up with inflation.

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The recovery needs to deliver for workers

The latest labour account survey released by the Bureau of Statistics revealed that while job growth remains solid and the job vacancy rate is at record levels, workers real incomes remains at best flat. 

As we now enter a phase where the Reserve Bank is raising interest rates in an effort to reduce demand in the economy and keep down inflation and prices and wages, labour market policy director, Greg Jericho, notes in his Guardian Australia column that workers risk seeing their real wages continue to fall.

It is clear that the major pressures for inflation have come not from labour costs but from the input costs of goods and material. While these costs have been passed on to consumers, there has been much less flow through to workers. 

While the Reserve Bank notes that there are some signs of rising wages, these will inevitably be reduced due to the impacts of rising interest rates. 

After a year in which real wages have plummeted, the recovery is very much looking like one where company profits have risen, but where workers will miss out on wage growth that would undo the damage of the past year. 

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Enterprise Bargaining System no Longer Fit for Purpose

The collapse in agreement coverage under Australia's enterprise bargaining system in Australia in recent years, particularly in the private sector, has focused attention on the need for reforms that will give more workers the effective ability to collectively negotiate better wages and conditions. In the private sector, coverage by a current enterprise agreement has fallen by half since 2013: to below 11% of all workers by March 2021. No wonder wages are lagging so far behind inflation.

The new Commonwealth government has pledged to find ways to strengthen collective bargaining. In this feature interview with the ABC's national economics program The Business, Senior Economist Alison Pennington discusses the reasons why the current system is not working, and some of the reforms that will be required to support bargaining and lift wages.

Alison Pennington on ABC


GDP figures show workers are losing out

The March quarter GDP figures show that while the economy is growing strongly, workers are missing out of their fair share. 

The national accounts released on Wednesday revealed that in the first 3 months of 2022 a record level of national income is going to corporate profits. At the same time real unit labour costs for non-farm workers fell 2.3%. Labour market and fiscal policy director, Greg Jericho, notes in his column in Guardian Australia that real (non-farm) unit labour costs are now 5.3% below where they were before the pandemic.

This data provides a strong fact check to arguments that workers need to take a pay cut to prevent rising inflation. The increase in inflation is not coming from labour costs, indeed workers are feeling the pain while in the words of the Bureau of Statistics, “Australian businesses benefited from rising prices.”

The GDP figures reveal that far from needing workers to be the ones who need to shoulder the burden of rising inflation, they clearly already have been the ones who have hurt the most. Asking them to continue to take real wage cuts will not help the economy, it will only exacerbate the shift of income going to profits and not to employees.

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Unemployment Rate Does Not Tell the Whole Story

Three days before the federal election, new ABS data confirmed that Australian wage growth is still stuck at historically weak rate (up just 2.4% year over year to March 2022). One day later, another ABS release showed another small decline in the unemployment rate, which is now below 4%. Most of the decline was due to people leaving the labour market (rather than new jobs being created). But the data is being cited by the current government as a sign that better wage growth is just around the corner.

In this commentary, CFW Associate Dr Anis Chowdhury explains why a lower unemployment rate, on its own, is not a solution to Australia's labour market and social challenges.

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Real wages plummet and will take years to recover

The release of the March Wage Price Index confirms what a horror year it has been for workers. While inflation in the past 12 months rose 5.1%, wages grew just 2.4%. Even worse, in the past year the price of non-discretionary items rose 6.6%, meaning for those on low wages, who spend more of their incomes on essential items, real wages would have fallen even more than the 2.6% average fall.

Labour market policy director, Greg Jericho notes in his Guardian Australia column that the fall in real wages has been the worst since the introduction of the GST and in the first 3 months of this year real wages fell 1.5%.

So steep has been the fall that real wages are now back essentially to where they were at the time of the September 2013 election.

The fall highlights that talk about Australia having recovered from the pandemic ignores the most basic aspect of the economy - the living standards of workers from their wages. 

The fall is such that even with the RBA's estimates of solid wage growth recovery over the next two years, should Australia return to pre-pandemic trend real wages growth, it would take till 2031 to recover workers purchasing power back to the levels of 2020. 

That would we a lost decade of living standards. 

 

 

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More Resources on Australia's Wages Crisis

The debate over wages, prices, and living standards heated up even further this week, with the release of new ABS statistics showing continuing weakness in wages despite the acceleration of inflation. The latest data from the ABS Wage Price Index (WPI) shows nominal wages grew just 2.4% over the 12 months ending in March. That is less than half as fast as consumer prices grew (5.1%), producing the biggest decline in real wages this century.

Our Centre continues to develop resources documenting the dimensions and causes of declining real wages, and countering the claim that trying to protect real living standards (by boosting wages at least as fast as inflation) will somehow cause hyperinflation and economic ruin.

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Webinar: Changes to the SCHADS Award and Next Steps to Improve Job Quality in Human Services

The Fair Work Commission recently announced important changes to the SCHADS Award (which sets minimum standards for workers in home care, disability services, community agencies, and other vital services) as part of its award review process. This culminates several years of research and advocacy by unions representing workers in these sectors, aimed at improving job quality and stability in these vital but undervalued positions. The Centre for Future Work provided expert testimony to the Commission as part of its review.

We recently hosted a special webinar to discuss the Commission's changes, their significance, and what comes next in the struggle to improve and properly value work in human services.

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Inadequate Sick Pay Contributes to Too Many Australians Working With COVID

Almost one in five Australians (and a higher proportion of young workers) acknowledge working with potential COVID symptoms over the course of the pandemic, according to new opinion research published by the Centre for Future Work.

The research confirms the public health dangers of Australia’s existing patchwork system of sick leave and related entitlements.

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