Why our poorest workers deserve an extra $28 a week
Each year the debate over the minimum wage seems to be dominated by people who’ll never have to live on it: economists, politicians, business lobbyists, and, I have to be honest, union
We can all forget that a dollar means different things to different people. That for one of the 1.4 million Australians on a low wage an few extra dollars a week can be the money that keeps the lights on, pays the rent or buys new shoes for a fast-growing child.
Last week the ACTU lodged its minimum wage claim - $28 extra per week for a full time worker.It’s not a big ask when you think of the rise in electricity prices, fuel costs, rents and other expenses.
That’s why I want to share with you some of the experiences of Australia’s low-paid workers. The ones who keep the building you work in clean, serve you in shops and might be looking after your kids or your ageing parents.
Jamal is 55, he works late nights and early mornings to clean shopping centres for $16 per hour. He works weekends, not because he likes it but because he has to. His wife works too, but with three kids he says the money is gone as soon as it comes in.
He has diabetes, and says his main worry is how to pay for the medicines he needs to stay fit enough to work. His plea to the Fair Work Commission is that “they need to look at us as humans - we can’t survive on $16 an hour”.
Joe is a bit better off. He works for a youth service focussing on youth homelessness. Getting a kid out of a dangerous situation and getting a secure roof over their head is a satisfying feeling but it doesn’t pay the bills.
Joe’s wife needs to work to keep the budget balanced because Joe, despite his skill and his 24 years’ experience, suffers from the low wages paid by non-profit organisations.
He says this is stopping his organisation from getting and keeping good staff. “We become a training organisation, because people who love the work end up finding they can’t make ends meet so they move on,” he says.
People like Jamal and Joe should not have to feel guilty about asking for more pay to keep up with the cost of living. Strong economic growth shouldn’t be a spectator support for people who do vital but low-paid jobs.
Minimum wage workers are the backbone of the economy. They are the people who clean our schools and shopping centres, serve us in hotels, who take care of our elderly and our children.
But every year employers and business groups oppose rises in the minimum wage.
The latest reason is that Australian workers should have their minimum wage rise deferred because of the turmoil in Libya and the Middle East. That’s the same turmoil that’s pushing up petrol prices by the way.
Each year employers describe any rise as “irresponsible” and warn of economic damage.
That’s wrong for two reasons. First the economy is made up of people, and if people are damaged, by low wages then our nation is poorer for it.
Australia cannot afford to develop an underclass of people in low-paid insecure work, who do not have the chance to buy a home, support their kids at university, or stay healthy.
It is possible to have a society that gives a dignified, living wage to workers without high levels of unemployment.
Secondly, there’s no direct link between minimum wages and unemployment.
The Federal Minimum wage in the USA is $7.25 per hour or about $290 for a 40-hour week.
Their dollar is currently roughly equal in value to ours, but the low-paid worker gets half the wage of their Australian equivalent.
But the US unemployment rate is at 9.5 per cent compared to our 5.1 per cent. I’m yet to hear any business leader explain that one.
The fact is that profits across Australia have been growing faster than wages. To help low-paid workers keep their heads above water we need a strong minimum wage.
This is not welfare, it is a recognition that if we want to keep the egalitarian society we love, we need to make sure the contract cleaner’s income is in the same league as the CEO’s.
Life has never been easy for those on the minimum wage, but a fair pay increase will help a lot of our fellow Australians who work hard, and want a better future for their children.
More Kudelka cartoons at www.kudelka.com.au
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