ACTU pushes $45-a-week pay rise for lowest paid

The Australian, March 29, 2017:

Unions will push for a “historic” $45-a-week pay rise for the ­nation’s lowest-paid, with new ACTU secretary Sally McManus declaring Australia’s minimum wage has fallen to “dangerously low levels” compared to average wages.

In a further sign of the union movement’s aggressive positioning under Ms McManus, the ACTU today will urge the Fair Work Commission to award ­almost triple the $15.80 pay rise that flowed through to 1.8 million workers last year. Ms McManus will use a National Press Club ­address in Canberra today to ­unveil the claim.

Last night employers condemned the move, accusing the ACTU of treating small bus­inesses “like an ATM”. Business groups will urge the commission to limit the annual pay rise to ­between $8 and $10 a week.

The Australian can reveal one of the country’s biggest unions, United Voice, will push for ­almost double the ACTU claim, seeking an $87-a-week increase from July 1 if the commission ­rejects its bid for a medium-term minimum wage target.

In her address today, Ms McManus will say the $45-a- week minimum wage claim, equivalent to a 6.69 per cent ­increase, was necessary to “combat rising economic unfairness”. The claim would lift the annual minimum wage to $37,420.

“Building economic security for the lowest-paid workers in our society is at the core of the ACTU’s objectives, and increasing the minimum wage is one of the most effective tools available to achieve this goal,’’ she will say.

“Australia’s minimum wage has been forced down to dangerously low levels when compared to average wages — stifling economic security for workers and further entrenching inequality, which is now at a 70-year high.”

But Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive James Pearson said the ACTU needed a reality check if it believed employers, the jobless and the underemployed could ­afford a $45-a-week increase.

“The hundreds of thousands of small businesses who employ staff on minimum wages should not be treated like an ATM by the ACTU,’’ Mr Pearson said. “This claim, which is many multiples of the inflation rate, is patently ambit. It would squeeze thousands of low-paid workers out of their jobs, adding many people to the unemployment queue.

“This claim is a worrying sign that the new leadership of the ACTU is not interested in the community benefit of expanding job opportunities, and doesn’t understand the importance of supporting small businesses to succeed.”

United Voice national secretary Jo Schofield said her union would press for the minimum wage to be lifted from $17.70 an hour to $20 an hour — equivalent to $87 a week — if the commission rejected its current claim for a medium-term minimum wage target. The commission has yet to rule on whether it has the power to set the target and will consider the position during the upcoming annual wage review.

Ms Schofield said the union wanted an “accelerated timetable” to lift the minimum wage to $20 an hour, given the pay gap ­between the minimum-wage employees and other workers. “We think it’s justified on its merits, given where minimum wages are at and given the gap between minimum-wage workers and other workers is higher than it’s been for 25 years or so,’’ she said.

Ms Schofield said the recent decision to cut penalty rates intensified pressure on workers.

Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said the increase should be limited to $10.10 a week, given low inflation and weak employment. “Rising energy costs and other cost pressures have eroded businesses’ ­capacity to afford wage increases,’’ he said.

Master Grocers, representing brands including IGA and FoodWorks, said the increase should be no more than $8.15 a week.