Page 1084 - Week 04 - Wednesday, 16 March 2005

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created by economic growth. It is essential that no-one is ever left behind during times of economic growth, and the national wage case is one of the most effective means of ensuring this. In particular, the submission considers the demography of low-paid workers and recognises that, amongst award-reliant employees, there is an overrepresentation of young workers, women and workers from non-English-speaking backgrounds. These are concerns echoed by the ACTU in their $26.60 submission. The Australian Catholic Commission for Employment Relations has today publicly supported this submission. The ACCER has recognised that low-wage workers are the most in need of a substantial increase in wages.

These submissions recognise the importance of passing on the benefits of economic growth to the lowest paid and of the counter effects of economic growth. We have seen over the last few years an unparalleled growth in the cost of accommodation, both in the form of house prices and of private rents. Petrol prices attracted media attention when they skyrocketed towards the end of last year and they have remained high since. When living costs increase, it is only fair to recognise a need for wages growth. Failure to do so results in a problem we are increasingly seeing in Australia, but one that has been prevalent in the United States for a significant period of time. This is the problem of the working poor—workers who are engaged in full-time employment but are unable to make ends meet. Described by Barbara Ehrenreich in her amazing book, Nickel and Dimed, the life of American low-paid workers unable to subsist on the minimum wage is something that we must avoid replicating at all costs in Australia.

The ACTU’s submission to the living wage case identifies the difficulties faced by many low-wage and full-time workers currently in making ends meets. The costs of living, considered necessities by the broader population, absorb the entirety of their income. Many low-wage workers already go without what would ordinarily be considered basic necessities. There is no budget capacity for saving, for training and education or for emergencies. Low-wage workers can live a precarious existence and it is this fact that makes the living wage case so necessary for our contemporary social economy.

Of all Australian employees, 19.9 per cent, about 1.6 million people, depend on award wages. More than 965,000 of these workers are women, 82 per cent of these employees earn less than the median weekly wage and 46 per cent are casual. The implications of these award increases, relevant only to those awards which deliver a minimum wage, affect millions of hotel workers, cleaners, waiters, bar attendants, sales assistants and other workers every year. For many award-wage workers, this is the only salary increase they will receive each year, despite rising costs of living such as the cost of food, petrol, accommodation and other necessary expenses. The high proportion of women workers on award wages means that tackling the issue of low pay for award-wage workers is essential in tackling endemic disparity between male and female wages.

The living wage case provides an important opportunity for wages growth for all low-wage workers and significantly impacts on the income of women workers in Australia. The living wage does not solve the problems of poverty and unemployment in our society and it does not adequately address the most significant emerging issue in the rise of the working poor, that of underemployment. But the fact that the case does recognise the importance of delivering a fraction of the benefits of economic growth to low-wage workers, does increase the pay packets in a real sense to low-wage workers, full-time, part-time and casual, and does consider the principle of fairness in industrial

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