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Minimum Wage, Maximum Struggle

There was a deafening silence at the Fair Work Commission this week. 

It was the silence of a Government that won’t put its mouth where its money is. 

Earlier this month, Josh Frydenberg handed down his budget which splashed more cash than any in recent memory. There were subsidies, tax cuts, tax write-offs, all kinds of things that look like economic stimulus but are actually just payments to business owners. 

Last week, they had an opportunity to dictate where that money would go and they chose to leave working people behind. The Fair Work Commission heard arguments on whether to raise the minimum wage at the National Minimum Wage Review, and the Government said nothing. 

Sally McManus stood with union members sharing their stories outside the Fair Work Commission

Sally McManus stood with union members sharing their stories outside the Fair Work Commission

“25% of working people depend on this pay rise,” ACTU Secretary Sally McManus told a crowd of trade unionists gathered outside the Fair Work Commission on Wednesday. Australian unions are asking for a 3.5% increase, while employer groups are set to argue for a freeze. If the Government were serious about wage growth, this would have been a very concrete, easy thing to do that would see significantly more of their budget money go directly to working people. It would have been a very effective, very direct economic stimulus. The Government has instead opted for continued wage suppression. 

A Mental Health Budget?

Frydenberg and Morrison touted their recent spending as a “mental health budget,” but for many low-paid workers there’s nothing that would improve their mental health and wellbeing more than a wage increase. 

“It’s the constant pressure,” says HACSU member and disability support worker Cathal McNulty.

“I’m constantly checking the bank balance, constantly checking if I’ll be able to pay rent. I’ve got personal medical issues that I have to have money in the bank for. If I have to have an appointment, I need to have money ready for that. So it's a constant worry.”

“The toll that it takes on mental health is so immense,” said Hospo Voice activist Grace Dowling, who spoke at the rally outside Fair Work. She’s been a bartender in Melbourne for over 10 years. “We see it every single day, my colleagues and I. Feeling insecure in your workplace means that you aren’t feeling respected, means that you aren’t feeling stable, means that you aren’t feeling safe.”

With $2.3 billion in the budget for mental health support services, some money to address the root cause of so much anxiety and depression in the community, i.e. economic stress, would go a long way.  

Essential Workers See Government’s True Colours

Grace doesn’t want lip service, she wants her fair share of a supposedly-recovering economy. 

“If the Morrison Government is going to come out and thank us time and time again for our hard work during and after the pandemic then it’s time for them to reflect that appreciation with a pay rise.” 

“We deserve this,” said Ines Lizama, a primary school cleaner who is relying on a minimum wage increase in order to make ends meet.

“Without essential cleaners, everyone would have kept getting sick! Everyone was infectious!”

(Left to right) UWU organiser Yunmi Lee with members Viviana Vasquez, Sofia Floros, and Ines Lizama who are demanding an increase to the minimum wage“People are working three to four hour shifts, Monday to Friday. So imagine, with the minimum wage under $20 an hour, how are people going to pay their rent? Pay for uni fees, if they are studying? Pay for food? And have a good quality of life like everyone else?”Quality of life is something that often gets left out of the conversation when talking about minimum wage. Or rather, when lawmakers talk about the minimum wage. There is a lot of hypothetical mathematics that takes place, suggesting with no small amount of imagination that it is theoretically possible to get by on the minimum wage. Whether that is true or not is beside the point. People deserve to enjoy their lives, not just drudge through them. The Fair Work Commission will be continuing its consultations and accepting submissions throughout May and June. With so much money supposedly flowing around in the economy now, how much of it will make its way into the pockets of those who need it most?

(Left to right) UWU organiser Yunmi Lee with members Viviana Vasquez, Sofia Floros, and Ines Lizama who are demanding an increase to the minimum wage

“People are working three to four hour shifts, Monday to Friday. So imagine, with the minimum wage under $20 an hour, how are people going to pay their rent? Pay for uni fees, if they are studying? Pay for food? And have a good quality of life like everyone else?”

Quality of life is something that often gets left out of the conversation when talking about minimum wage. Or rather, when lawmakers talk about the minimum wage. There is a lot of hypothetical mathematics that takes place, suggesting with no small amount of imagination that it is theoretically possible to get by on the minimum wage. Whether that is true or not is beside the point. People deserve to enjoy their lives, not just drudge through them. 

The Fair Work Commission will be continuing its consultations and accepting submissions throughout May and June. With so much money supposedly flowing around in the economy now, how much of it will make its way into the pockets of those who need it most?

There was a deafening silence at the Fair Work Commission this week. It was the silence of a Government that won’t put its mouth where its money is.

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