Coronavirus: Retail bosses demand pay freeze for low-paid workers

National retailers have called for a 12-month pay freeze to be imposed on low-paid workers and the ­annual minimum wage review ­decision to be delayed by at least six months.

The National Retail Association, which calls itself the “union for employers”, told the Fair Work Commission the “unprecedented economic crisis caused by the corona­virus pandemic meant no minimum wage rise could be justified for at least 15 months”.

The association said an increase could not be considered “sound, defensible or well-founded”, and the commission’s expert panel should defer “any consideration of an increase to minimum wages, preferably for 12 months but for a minimum of six months, in order to allow a true assessment of the prevailing economic conditions”.

“If the expert panel is of the view that it is not empowered to delay its determination, then the NRA submits that there should be no increase to minimum wages in the present review,” it said.

The association said while “some may argue that sections of the retail sector are profiting from recent consumer behaviour”, these were a minority … and many larger businesses had enterprise agreements and might not be immediately ­affected by award increases”.

The Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work said if the commission accepted growing calls by employers for a minimum wage freeze, average wages growth would fall below 1 per cent. The centre told the expert panel that without the relatively strong minimum wage increases that have been implemented since 2017, overall wage growth would be tracking at below 2 per cent.

“If the wage panel accepts the predictable arguments from employer groups that wages should not be increased because of the turmoil associated with the COVID-19 pandemic (on top of macroeconomic and labour market conditions that were already rather dismal), then the only source of reliable wage strength would be removed from the labour market,” it said.

“Our analysis indicates that if there is no increase in the minimum wage, overall wage growth this year will sink below 1 per cent.

“In our judgment, the wage panel should proceed with a regular, healthy increase in the minimum wage, in line with the long-run objectives of fairness and economic efficiency. That will help the coming multi-dimensional ­effort to stabilise the economy and labour market, not hurt it.”

The commission has changed the timetable for the minimum wage review given the coronavirus pandemic and is taking submissions on an Australian Industry Group call for the decision’s operative date to be delayed to July 15.