When the Australian Bureau of Statistics released its latest wages data in May (for the March quarter) we learned that real wages were falling as a result of nominal wages failing to keep pace with the modest inflation rate. Today (August 16, 2017), the ABS released the – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the June-quarter 2017. For the sixth consecutive quarter, annual growth in wages has recorded its lowest level since the data series began in the December-quarter 1997. Nominal wages growth in Australia was just 1.9 per cent in annual terms and equal to the inflation rate of 1.9 per cent. So on the back of real wage cuts in the March-quarter, workers enjoyed zero real wages growth in the June-quarter. This is in the context of on-going productivity growth, which means that the profit share in national income rose again as real unit labour costs plunged. But employment growth also remains flat. This represents a major rip-off for workers. The flat wages trend is also intensifying the pre-crisis dynamics, which saw private sector credit rather than real wages drive growth in consumption spending. Further, the forward estimates for fiscal outcomes provided by the Australian government are now not achievable, given the flat wages growth. There is no way the tax receipts will rise in line with the projections, which assumed much stronger wages and employment growth than will occur under current austerity-type fiscal settings.
Today’s discussion is about how employment policy becomes so corrupted by neo-liberal ideology (overlaid with some healthy racism) that the government causes damage rather than advances well-being. The examples I outline demonstrate the wider problem that neo-liberal inspired governments clearly understand the economy is not working yet they cannot bring themselves to introduce obvious solutions to the problems identified. Further, while they claim their policy choices are constrained by the ‘money’ they have to spend (limited according to their narrative), when they do spend ‘money’ they bias the benefits to corporate interests as a profit subsidy rather than providing sustainable income support for the most disadvantaged who just become pawns in the subsidy to capital. And then, they pretend, they are obeying ‘market’ dictates when the ‘free market (not!)’ was never in the picture anyway. The on-going hypocrisy of this neo-liberal era.
One of the abiding and recurring trends, accentuated in the neo-liberal era, is the apparent ‘concern’ for the low-paid by the captains of industry. They continually warn against allowing pay increases for this cohort because they are – so the story goes – deeply concerned about the damage it will do to the employment prospects. What they really mean is that they know pay rises at the bottom end of the pay structure don’t alter employment levels significantly but have some impact on profitability. That is, they reduce profits a little. And that is the concern they are really expressing. The British Chambers of Commerce have called for a freeze on real wages for the lowest paid workers in Britain despite profitability soaring and the share of business profits in national income rising. The expression ‘where do these characters get off’ comes to mind. Although it is hardly surprising. British entrepreneurs tend to be lazy and take the easy way out when they can to further their own ends.
Earlier this month (July 3, 2017) the British Office of National Statistics (ONS) released a research report – Wage growth in Pay Review Body Occupations – which basically summarises what has gone wrong with the world under neo-liberalism. While the Report is about the UK, which has particular characteristics, the trends identified are almost universal and reflect the dominance of the ‘free-(not!)-market’ austerity mentality that has crippled progress around the world. It also helps us understand why the British economy is stalling again and why the latest data on household spending is so disturbing. These trends have nothing to do with Brexit. They are all down to misguided government policy (austerity) and erroneous strategies that seek to generate fiscal surpluses when the non-government sector needs to also run surpluses (and the two aspirations are not simultaneously achievable). British workers are paying for this incompetence. The economists who gratuitously hand out the spurious advice, unfortunately do not lose their jobs.
There was an interesting article in the Financial Times on Monday (June 26, 2017) – Why US big business is listening to Bernie Sanders – which, despite the somewhat misleading and over-the-top headline, tells us a little of the way the full neo-liberal attack on workers is in regression. Not, I might add because of any philosophical or moral consideration. But, rather, the top-end-of-town is starting to work out that their headlong race-to-the-bottom approach over the last three decades is not actually in their best interests. The top-end-of-town is not that bright. More brutish than bright and it takes some time for them to work out what we have known all along. Globalisation mixed with neo-liberalism is poison. Globalisation mixed with social democracy is progress.
This is an extension of yesterday’s blog on the Australian national accounts release (Australian economy was slowing fast in March-quarter 2017 and outlook negative and delves further into the income side of the results, which are, frankly, stunning. They also accord with general global trends which I have written about in the past, which are creating further income inequality and damaging stable damaging growth prospects. Yesterday’s data confirmed that over the last two quarters (at least) almost all of the income growth has been captured by profits, with real wages and salaries actually falling in the March-quarter 2017. No wonder the growth in consumption spending fell away in the first part of 2017. Does that matter? Well, a rise in the profit share undermines consumption spending. If consumption spending is weak, the opportunities for profitable investment in new productive capital decline. Economies that are growing strongly provide a fertile environment for private investment. Austerity-ridden economies undermine private investment. Economies where consumption is falling due to real wage suppression also do not provide a buoyant investment climate. Flat wages growth in Australia has seen the saving ratio fall back towards zero and households take on ever more debt burdens. The Household debt to disposable income ratio is now at record levels. The declining wage share and the resulting credit binge in many nations were clearly causal in creating the global financial crisis. The mainstream economists believed that the markets were efficient and that there would be no problems with placing an increasing proportion of real income into the hands of the Casino economy. They were wrong. And with the same trends now repeating – they will be wrong again.
Today, the Australian Fair Work Commission (FWC), which is a judicial institution charged with setting minimum wages and conditions announced the outcome of their – Annual Wage Review – 2016-17. The FWC decided to lift the National Minimum wage by 3.3 per cent over the next year at a time when the inflation rate is running around 2.1 per cent. In other words, the lowest-paid workers are finally get a a much-needed real wage increase when other workers (on higher wages) are experiencing record low wages growth and real wage cuts. For years, the relatively between those on minimum wages and those on average earnings has been increasing as the low-paid have been forced to endure regular real wage cuts. In the last year or so that position has reversed as the non-minimum wage workers have been forced to endure record low wage increases and in recent quarters real wage cuts and the FWC has awarded modest real wage increases to the minimum wage workers. However, while today’s decision provides for some real wage growth for the lowest paid workers it is hardly anything to write homeabout, and, in the words of the FWC itself, not sufficient to lift the minimum wage workers who are experiencing working poverty out of that state. Life for low-wage workers in Australia is tough and would be much tougher if there were not enforced regulations to stop the capitalists from taking more and dishing out capricious treatment to the workers.
In the most recent – Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings: 2016 provisional results – published by the British Office of National Statistics on October 26, 2016, we learn what we had suspected for some time – the purchasing power of workers’ wages are now lower than before the GFC. Neo-liberalism at work in Britain. Today (May 17, 2017), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released its latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the March-quarter 2017. For the fifth consecutive quarter, annual growth in wages has recorded its lowest level since the data series began in the December-quarter 1997. Nominal wages growth in Australia was just 1.9 per cent in annual terms below the annual inflation rate for March of 2.1 per cent. So real wages declined even though productivity growth remains positive – which means that the profit share in national income rose again as real unit labour costs plunged. But employment growth also remains flat. This represents a major rip-off for workers. The flat wages trend is also intensifying the pre-crisis dynamics, which saw private sector credit rather than real wages drive growth in consumption spending. As I also noted in last week’s commentary on the 2017 Fiscal Statement – Australian government in contractionary bias when stimulus is needed – the forward estimates for fiscal outcomes provided by the Australian government are already under threat as a result of the cuts in real wages. There is no way the tax receipts will rise in line with the projections, which assumed much stronger wages and employment growth than will occur under current austerity-type fiscal settings
In the September-quarter 2016, Australia recorded negative GDP growth (-0.5 per cent). Over the last two years, employment growth has been flat and over the last 12 months, full-time employment has dived. Underemployment has risen sharply while unemployment remains at elevated levels and participation at depressed levels (meaning hidden unemployment has risen). And over the last four quarters, wages growth in Australia has been at record lows. Sounds bad. Well for some – make that most of us. But yesterday, the ABS shone a light on one cohort of income recipients – capital – profits rose in the December-quarter by 20.1 per cent. What? And wages fell by 0.5 per cent. Phew, I thought there might be some sharing of the spoils going on – you know, the top-end-of-town letting the workers in on the action a bit. This data comes as Australian workers are being shafted by rises in energy prices as a consequence of large companies, many foreign-owned, being given carte blanche to our national energy resources. A major union’s response today has been to call for a gas reservation policy to guarantee domestic supply (which is waning as we export our heads off). Unfortunately, while the call appears to be based on reason – lower prices, guarantees to local industry etc – any move to a domestic reservation policy would slow down the shift to renewables and just shift profits from export to import operations. It is not the sort of regulation that a progressive should support.
In case you thought that neo-liberalism had gone and buried its head in shame after all the disasters that it has wrought after several decades of privatisation, outsourcing, pernicious welfare changes, fiscal austerity, out of control banksters, dramatic increases in income and wealth inequality, then Australia’s most recent effort will remind that it is still alive and well and morphing into something more nasty than we have previously seen (in this country). On Thursday (February 23, 2017), the Fair Work Commission, which is the judicial body empowered by the Federal Government to set minimum wages and conditions in all sectors (so-called ‘awards’) determined that the lowest-paid workers in Australia – more than a million of them (in an employed Labour Force of just over 12 million) – were getting too higher wages and incomes. Accordingly, they decided to cut wages – not just the real equivalent but the actual wage rates that these workers earn. The judges (who I guess do not work as a matter of course on Sunday) have fallen prey of this 24/7 greed for more profits and determined that Sunday work no longer justifies the existing penalty rates. Their decision to savagely cut them just means the bosses pocket more profits and workers move closer or into poverty with rising bankrupcties, mortgage and credit card defaults and the rest of it. The decision is a disaster for the lowest-paid (hospitality, retail and cafe) workers in this country and it will feed through to other sectors before long. The Federal government could easily legislate to stop the cuts. It won’t. The trade unions could rebel. They won’t. So it is really left to us – the citizens to do everything we can including boycotts of firms who exploit the decision to proctect the wages of the poor.