Page 1086 - Week 04 - Wednesday, 16 March 2005

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combating poverty, decent and liveable wages are essential. Investment in training and skilling of the work force generates economic growth and enhanced productivity. These are needed to tackle unemployment and for long-term sustainable economic growth, and they demand a living wage that ensures that workers are not living hand to mouth.

The living wage case already engages in a balancing process of the needs of workers and their families and the economic considerations, including forecasts. In fact, this is already legislatively prescribed in section 90 of the Workplace Relations Act: the bench must have special regard for employment and inflation. The process itself remains fundamental to ensuring that Australia avoids the US style situation of the working poor. We are ensuring that low-wage workers have some access to the benefits of economic growth. We are ensuring that considerations of fairness impact on the operation of Australian workplaces and that productivity and profits are not placed above human dignity.

Support for the living wage case does not deny that there is much that needs to be done in Australian industrial relations to progress fairness and ensure the decency of wages and conditions for all Australian workers. One of the biggest concerns relates to the issue of underemployment. While workers on award wages include part-time and casual workers, the living wage is considered on a full-time basis. The reality for many Australian low-wage workers is not that they have no work but that they do not have enough work.

There is an identifiable trend in the increase of casual and part-time work across the Australian work force. In 2003, 27.6 per cent of all wage and salary earners were in a casual job. The majority report of the House of Representatives committee recognises the impact of increased employment and participation in paid work on low-income earners and those receiving government assistance. The important issue here is to recognise the prevalence of underemployment in Australian society and the importance of security of employment and reasonableness of wage.

This was an issue recognised explicitly in the dissenting report, which noted that during the committee’s public hearings “on no occasion had evidence supported the assertion that reducing allowable matters in federal awards would have any bearing on improving participation in the paid workforce”. The ACTU submission legitimately contends that:

It is generally acknowledged that many low paid employees experience difficulty in making ends meet and are unable to afford what are regarded as necessities by the broader Australian community.

When this is the case for full-time workers, it is apparent that those workers included in employment statistics as employed yet who may work as little as an hour a week can suffer extreme poverty. The significance of the living wage case for low-wage workers across Australia and for Canberrans is immense. While in dollar terms the difference may not sound exceptional, for a full-time worker on average wages this is very significant.

The living wage case protects full-time, low-wage workers from being enveloped in the trap of the working poor. It guarantees consideration of important equity issues and

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