On September 15, 2014, the Melbourne Age article – Workers can forget about big pay rises for some time to come – summarised the wages outlook that workers can expect in the coming year as the labour market weakens. Its bleak. Meanwhile, CEO pay while down from the peaks of 2007 remains excessive according to a major survey released in Australia this morning. Depending on how one measures it, the average CEO of the Top 100 companies earns between 65 and 84 times what the average worker takes homeeach year. And these bosses lead the cheer squad when industry leaders and government ministers claim workers have to take pay cuts and surrender penalty rates and that the minimum wage should be abandoned. The neo-liberal obscenity survived the GFC and has now reorganised. Woe be us!
There is growing pressure on Australia’s wage setting tribunals to scrap penalty and overtime rates, allegedly because they damage employment and firms are just busting to put more workers on as long as wages drop. I have had a long association with these tribunals as an expert witness and I cannot recall the employers’ representatives ever agreeing that the time is right for wage rises. If their submissions are to be taken on their word then there would never be any wage increases. The facts are that real wages continue to fall in Australia – more rapidly in the private sector than the public. The Australian Bureau of Statistics published the latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the June quarter yesterday (August 13, 2014) and the data shows that hourly wage inflation is running at 2.4 per cent per annum, which is well below the current inflation rate. Real wages growth is also well below the growth in hourly productivity, which means that the Australian distribution system is still redistributing real national income to profits. And all the while employment growth is flat or negative. Meanwhile, our cigar-smoking Treasurer sees it as his role to berate the poor for being poor and distorting the public data to hide the fact that the May fiscal statement (aka budget) significantly cuts the real standard of living for low income earners and leaves the top income earners relatively unscathed. But all of this is in the name of fiscal austerity (aka madness).
The Fair Work Commission, the Federal body entrusted with the task of determining Australia’s minimum wage handed down its – 2013-14 decision – on June 4, 2014. The decision meant that more than 1.5 million of our lowest paid workers (out of some 11.6 million) received an extra $18.70 per week from July 1. This amounted to an increase of 3 per cent (up from last year’s rise of 2.6 per cent). The Federal Minimum Wage (FMW) is now $640.90 per week or $16.87 per hour. For the low-paid workers in the retail sector, personal care services, hospitality, cleaning services and unskilled labouring sectors there was no cause for celebration. They already earn a pittance and endure poor working conditions. The pay rise will at best maintain the current real minimum wage but denies this cohort access to the fairly robust national productivity growth that has occurred over the last two years. The decision also widens the gap between the low paid workers and other wage and salary recipients. The real story though is that today’s minimum wage outcome is another casualty of the fiscal austerity that the Federal Government has imposed on the nation which is destroying jobs and impacting disproportionately on low-paid workers.
Australian readers will recall earlier in the year when the Federal Employment Minister Eric Abetz warned the public that there would be a wages breakout unless union power was curbed and they negotiated collective agreements with employers that were in the national interest. The ABC news report (January 14, 2014) – Eric Abetz warns of wages ‘explosion’ unless employers stop ‘caving in’ to unions – said that the Minister berated “weak-kneed employers” who caved into “unreasonable union demands” and then lobbied him to cut union power. The same scaremongering accompanied the decision by Fair Work Australia to lift the minimum wage by xx per cent on June, 2014. This was not only a wages explosion but would cause a catastrophic loss of low-paid jobs according to the right-wing anti-worker cheer squad, including leading figures in the Federal government. The problem is that these ‘beat ups’ are lies.
Australia is caught in a bizarre warp at the moment. We have a national election in September and the incumbent Labor Party is heading for obliteration with the Party conducting an internal power struggle that defies description. The Prime Minister is deeply unpopular and is being poorly advised (as evidenced by the sequence of strategic disasters). The politician she deposed as PM is popular with the people but hated internally and he also proved to be a policy disaster. The current PM should step down to limit the electoral damage that will be wrought on the Party in September (that is, save some seats) but she won’t and the other character won’t challenge because he is behaving as the wrecking ball – bitter, revengeful and, most significantly without sufficient support (just). Its a tragic comedy of epic proportions. The Opposition is gliding into power without coherent policies and will reinstate the agenda it pursued when last in power (1996-2007), which means attacks on welfare and unions and handouts to the rich. Anticipating the change are the employer groups which are increasingly claiming they are being disadvantaged by excessive wage outcomes in Australia. Same old. It doesn’t help when the media produce headlines such as “Labour cost growth hits business hard”, which are not sustained by any coherent analysis that follows. It is a bizarre time.
The Fair Work Commission, the Federal body entrusted with the task of determining Australia’s minimum wage handed down its – 2012-13 decision – today. The news was not good for more than 1.5 million workers (out of some 11.6 million) who are reliant on award wages in Australia (that is, low-paid workers). These workers are typically found in the retail sector, personal care services, hospitality, cleaning services and unskilled labouring. They already earn a pittance and endure poor working conditions. The FWC gave the lowest paid workers an extra $15.80 per week (a rise of just over 2.6 per cent), which will at best maintain the current real minimum wage but denies this cohort access to the fairly robust national productivity growth that has occurred over the last two years. The decision also widens the gap between the low paid workers and other wage and salary recipients. The real story though is that today’s minimum wage outcome is another casualty of the fiscal austerity that the Federal Government has imposed on the nation which is destroying jobs and impacting disproportionately on low-paid workers. The FWC cited rising unemployment as a reason for its mean pay rise.
On Friday (June 3, 2011) Fair Work Australia which is the body that formally sets the minimum wage in Australia handed down its Annual Wage Review 2010-11 decision. The Minimum Wage Panel of FWA released its second Annual Wage Review under the Fair Work Act 2009 and awarded minimum wage workers an additional $19.40 per week which amounted to a 3.5 per cent rise. With inflation running around the same rate or higher, the decision fails to provide for a real wage increase especially given productivity growth is running at around 1.5 per cent at present. The decision will apply over from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012. The decision further cements the real wage losses that low-paid workers have endured over the decade and is not sufficient to arrest the deterioration of low-pay outcomes relative to average earnings in the economy.
Today I have been working with various datasets (labour costs, long-term unemployment) and this blog provides some interesting aspects of what is going on at present. The blog should also be seen in the context of a speech made yesterday by the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), Ric Battellino (a NAIRU devotee) to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia in Perth. His presentation was intending to justify the interest rate hikes that the RBA has been pursuing this year. He continued to assert the RBA line that the Australian economy is running out of spare capacity and so interest rate hikes are necessary. This is in the context of a sharp rise in the exchange rate which is deflationary, actual falls in the inflation rate (and well within their “target band”), more than 12.5 per cent of available labour resources remaining idle and long-term unemployment rising because employment growth can barely keep pace with labour force growth. Macroeconomic policy in Australia is severely distorted at the moment because of the dominance of monetary policy and the obsessions about budget surpluses. In summary, the NAIRU mantra is preventing good macroeconomic policy and the growing pool of long-term unemployed are carrying the burden more than most.
There is an election campaign upon us in Australia now and one of the themes the government is developing by way of garnering credit for its policies is that Australia is operating at near full employment thanks to their economic policy framework. Nothing could be further from the truth – both that we are close to full employment and that their policy framework is moving us towards full employment. But this claim, which is repeated often these days and was a catchcry of the former conservative government as well, is a testament as to how successful the neo-liberal orthodoxy has perverted the meaning of signficant concepts (like full employment) and convinced the community that you can be near full employment and therefore there is no real problem to address when you have at least 12.2 per cent of your willing labour resources being wasted. It continually amazes me.
Today, Fair Work Australia, the new body that the incoming Labor government set up to replace the Fair Pay Commission, which the conservatives had crafted to cut real wages, released its first decision. The Minimum Wage Panel of FWA released its first Annual Wage Review under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Fair Work Act) and awarded minimum wage workers an additional $26 per week which amounted to a 4.8 per cent rise. With inflation running around 2.9, the decision provides for a real wage increase barely in line with productivity growth. The decision will apply over from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011. The decision does little to restore the real wage losses that low-paid workers have endured over the decade is it sufficient to restore the deterioration of low-pay outcomes relative to average earnings in the economy.