Yesterday (November 29, 2021), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Business Indicators – for the September-quarter 2021. This dataset provides quarterly estimates of private sector sales, wages, profits and inventories. It provides a means of viewing exactly what has gone wrong with the Australian economy over the last two decades as successive governments have failed to prioritise general well-being, and, have instead, acted as agents of capital. There is a massive imbalance in the capacity of workers and profit-recipients to access national income that is produced by the workers. Profits have been booming while wages growth has been low for a long time now. And if you thought the booming profits would be siphoned into productive investment to lift productivity and create the non-inflationary space for real wage increases, then you would be wrong. The massive lift in profits has gone into unjustifiable increases in executive pay, property booms and financial market speculation. None of the things that help lift national prosperity and well-being.
The British Labour Party leader (for now) Keir Starmer gave a – Keynote Speech – to the Annual Conference of the Confederation of British Industry in Birmingham on November 22, 2021. If you read it or heard it you will know that his leadership marks the return of British Labour as class traitors. He started by saying the “Labour is back in business”, which should have been ‘Labour is the agent of business’ He played up the line that Britain’s future depends on the business sector profits growing stronger than they are now and that everyone benefits when profits are high and growing. Even at the most elementary level that statement defies the evidence. But for a Labour leader to make it spells trouble for the Party. So what else is new.
Today (November 17, 2021), the ABS released the latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the September-quarter 2021. The WPI data shows that nominal wages growth rose above levels recorded in previous quarters and the pattern resembled the pre-pandemic growth path – low to modest. The inflation rate continues to outstrip nominal wages growth, which means that workers in all sectors bar ‘Professional, scientific and technical services’ experienced on-going cuts drops in their real wages (purchasing power). The behaviour of nominal wages in Australia gives us a clear signal that there is little prospect of sustained inflationary pressures emerging from the labour market any time soon. Wages in the public sector grew by only 1.6 per cent over the 12 months as a result of the ridiculous wage freezes and wage caps that the federal and state governments are imposing. There can be no sustained recovery for the economy post Covid without a significant shift in the way we think about wages growth.
One of the important concepts one learns in studying the way firms work with respect to pricing and markups is the distinction between quantity and price adjustment over the course of an economic cycle. When economists talk of supply and demand, they usually refer to price adjustment, where prices adjust up or down when there is an imbalance between these aggregates. Orthodox economics presumes that prices adjust, for example, to eliminate an excess supply, which they apply to the labour market and conclude that the cure for mass unemployment is wage cutting. The problem is that in many circumstances, firms use quantity adjustments long before they contemplate price adjustments, because the former involves lower costs. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) ran a story from its business reporters today (November 16, 2021) – As migration restarts, will it hold down wages for everyone? – which has also become a feature news segment on its television coverage today. The analysis presented is seriously misleading. It not only fails to characterise the problem properly but buys into a highly contentious debate about whether migration has negative impacts on the labour market prospects for local workers. It behoves analysts to actually construct the problem correctly before they start taking sides in this debate. The ABC article fails in that regard which is disappointing. Their failure also reflects the lack of diversity in opinion they seek these days. They chose to simply rehearse the arguments presented by one pro-migration analysis as if it was definitive rather than seek expert opinion from neutral analysis. But it also demonstrates why understanding the difference between quantity and price adjustment is crucial to getting the conclusions right.
I have been researching the so-called labour shortage that business types are talking about relentlessly as part of their on-going strategy to undermine the conditions of work and make more profit. In the course of that enquiry, I came across an interesting juxtaposition between two US companies that illustrate a lot of what we have known about for years but have allowed this relentless, neoliberal, race-to-the-bottom to obscure. Well-paid workers with job security, work better and are happy workers. Companies that pursue the ‘race-to-the-bottom’ strategy and seek to build profits by trashing the conditions they offer workers eventually struggle to prosper because their bad reputation undermines their ability to attract productive workers. In the case we discuss today, the so-called ‘labour shortage’ is really just a signal of management caprice. Rather than being a shortage of workers, there is a shortage of workers who will tolerate the indignity of low wages, onerous conditions and capricious management. It is also a union versus non-union type of discussion where the unionised work places generate high productivity and worker attachment, while the non-unionised workplaces find it hard to attract reliable staff and blame it all on ‘labour shortages’.
Part of my working day is spent updating databases and studying the additional observations. I learn a lot that way about trends and how far off the mark my expectations of a particular phenomenon might be. Today I updated various labour market datasets from Britain and did some digging into the relationship between vacancies and pay. It is clear that as the British economy opens up again, that unfilled job vacancies have grown very strongly over the Northern summer. While that is a good thing because it means there are opportunities for workers to gain employment, shift employment to better paying jobs etc, the message is no unambiguous. If the vacancy growth is biased towards low-pay work then the chances for upward mobility might be stifled. Such a trend might also reflect the fact that employers are now finding that their old practices of accessing vast pools of EU labour willing to work at low wages are being constrained and that will signal the need for a change in strategy, including restructuring, capital investment and better paid jobs. It is too early to discern which way that will go. But what I found while looking at this new data is that while job vacancies are booming, the majority of them are in below-average pay sectors. More analysis is needed to fully assess the implications. Here is where I started on this path …
There were two significant data releases from the Australian Bureau of Statistics this week that provide information about the state of the labour market – both in the short-term and also in terms of longer-term trends. The first release (September 8, 2021) – Labour Account Australia – June 2021 – is a quarterly dataset that allows us to tie together information about employment, persons, hours and payments. The second release today (September 9, 2021) is the – Weekly Payroll Jobs and Wages in Australia – Week ending August 14, 2021 – which is Australian Tax Office data that provides a much more current view of how the labour market is performing. That snapshot is especially valuable given the on-going tight lockdowns in Sydney and Melbourne and the impact they are having on employment and wages.
I find it amusing when some self-styled ‘progressive’ commentator, usually writing in the UK Guardian newspaper, bemoans Brexit and points to claims by business that there is a shortage of workers. The ‘shortage’, of course, is results from not being able to access unlimited supplies of cheap foreign workers as easily as before. When I see a shortage of workers, I celebrate, because it means employers will have to break out of their keep wages growth low mentality to attract labour; that they will have to offer adequate skills training to ensure the workers can do the work required; and, that unemployment will be driven as low as can be. What is not good about that? Brexit has done a lot of things, one of them being to provide the British working class to arrest the degradation in their labour market conditions that neoliberalism has wrought in a context of plenty of low wage labour always being in surplus. A similar thing will come from the pandemic in Australia where our external border has been shut for nearly 18 months now.
Today (August 18, 2021), the ABS released the latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the June-quarter 2021. The WPI data shows that nominal wages growth remains suppressed, and, as a result of the transitory spikes in inflation recently, workers in all sectors experienced sharp drops in their real wages (purchasing power). The behaviour of nominal wages in Australia gives us a clear signal that there is little prospect of sustained inflationary pressures emerging from the labour market any time soon. Wages in the public sector grew by only 1.3 per cent over the 12 months as a result of the ridiculous wage freezes and wage caps that the federal and state governments are imposing. This is not leadership at all.
Last Thursday, guest blogger Scott Baum analysed the recent decision by the Fair work Commission – Annual Wage Review 2020-21 – on June 16, 2021, which raised the National minimum Wage in Australia to $772.60 per week or $20.33 per hour. See his blog post at – The working poor are still poor in Australia (July, 2021). Today, I also review that decision as part of my annual surveillance on minimum wage trends in Australia. The Fair Work Commission, is Australia’s wage setting tribunal, and as part of that task conducts an annual wage review which sets minimum wages across the nation. The minimum wage determination then flows on to other wage rates (these are the wage awards linked to the NMW). The decision is poor because it will further undermine the real living standards of tens of thousands of low paid workers. In particular, the decision to phase in the pay increases (November 2021 for Group 2 Awards and February 2022 for Group 3 Awards) is a disaster for low-paid workers in the hospitality, retail and tourism sectors. Meanwhile the major employer groups argued for zero or mimimal nominal rise while enjoying growth in profits with rising productivity growth. A scandalous indictment of our system.