The Guardian • Issue #2001


Wages going backwards

Back in 2019, the then-federal finance minister Mathias Cormann admitted that low wage growth was part of the government’s economic architecture. Combined with their ideological attacks on unions, workers’ wages have not kept pace with the cost of living increases since the Coalition came into power in 2013. During this time, there has been a mass casualisation of workers, with nearly half of Australian workers now employed on a casual basis with many working more than one job to make ends meet.

Casual workers do not have the same workplace rights as permanent workers; they have no right to sick pay, annual leave pay, or access to unfair dismissal laws and no leverage for wage rises. They often go to work sick and injured because they cannot afford time off to recover; they suffer from the stress of not being able to afford time off for vacations; and the constant threat of termination from their jobs if they complain about working conditions or wage rates. Union membership is low because many feel because they are casual they don’t have the same workplace protections that permanent workers who are union members enjoy.

Wages have increased only by eighteen per cent since the Coalition came to power while the cost of living has skyrocketed. In the past year alone, rents have increased on average by 8.9 per cent, with buying a house becoming unaffordable for the majority of the working class as median house prices now exceed $1,000,000 in over 400 local government localities. In the past nine years, the cost of fuel has doubled; the price of beef has gone up sixty-four per cent; the price of fresh fruit and vegetables has increased by twenty-two per cent; childcare forty-four per cent; and healthcare by thirty-three per cent. Meanwhile, the cost of the Sunday lamb roast has gone up forty-nine per cent, and if you want to wash it down with a cold beer, that will cost you an extra twenty-six per cent.

The disparity between wage rises and the cost of living has been rapidly accelerating since the start of the Ukrainian-Russo Conflict, which has had the effect of skyrocketing fuel costs, causing everyday living costs to rapidly increase. Shoppers are reporting price increases of around twenty per cent on everyday grocery items; even workers in full-time jobs are struggling to make ends meet. The federal government’s solution? A one-off payment in an attempt to buy votes for the upcoming election that will do little to alleviate the long term pain.

During the pandemic, while workers were struggling, the big corporations were raking in the profits at record rates thanks in no small part to the corporate welfare dished out to them in the form of Jobkeeper payments. Even when they didn’t qualify for them they were allowed to keep the money and not have to pay it back, unlike welfare recipients who are regularly hounded for unsubstantiated debts. Corporations are making massive profits but refuse to pass any on to workers, showing the trickledown theory for what it is, nothing more than a myth pushed by capitalist propaganda.

But of course, this is all part of the neoliberal capitalist agenda to keep attacking unions and drive down workers’ wages in real terms because they realise that when workers are making barely enough money to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table they will be less likely to complain about poor wages or working conditions because they cannot afford to go on strike or be fired, particularly for the forty-nine per cent of workers that are casual employees.

Ever since the Prices and Income Accord – an agreement between the Hawke Labor government and the ACTU – there has been a steady decline in workers’ rights and take-home pay, culminating with the Howard government’s failed Workchoices legislation that was defeated by militant unionism and community anger. Still, workers no longer have the right to strike unless they gain permission from the Fair Work Commission. Without the right to strike, workers have lost any leverage they had to gain meaningful wage increases.

Only a socialist system of government can ensure workers receive the wealth they produce. Now is the time for workers to rise up and fight for socialism.

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