At first glance, the Fair Work Commission minimum wage decision looks like it has followed its traditional approach of largely splitting the difference between competing employer and union claims.
The ACTU wanted a $30 a week increase and employers pushed for zero so awarding $13 a week looks like a classic commission compromise, one that makes cynics wonder why the expert panel even bothers going through months of deliberations.
But closer examination shows the commission has strived to balance the extraordinary challenges facing the economy with its legislative obligations to take into account relative living standards and the needs of the low-paid.
Splitting from the majority, panel member and economist Mark Wooden called for no increase, arguing the commission should prioritise growth in jobs and hours over a wage increase.
Given the impact of COVID-19 and government restrictions, a commission decision backing a wage freeze would not have caused shockwaves outside the union movement, and might have been politically defendable by the government.
Instead, the majority had decided to grant a modest increase while seeking to protect the industries most impacted by the economic crisis by staggering the rise over three different dates depending on the sector.
Frontline health care, child care and essential service workers will be among the Group 1 industries that will receive an increase from July 1.
Workers in Group 2 industries including construction and manufacturing will get a pay rise from November. Group 3 workers including those in accommodation and food services, retail trade, arts and recreation, aviation and tourism will receive an increase in February 2021.
On the commission’s calculations, about 700,000 award-reliant workers in these significantly impacted industries will have to wait seven months for a pay rise.
Ahead of this decision, the one certainty was the ACTU was not going to succeed in winning its $30 a week claim.
It looked unrealistic for unions not to shift their position in recent months given what the commission called the “unprecedented shock” to the labour market.
Indeed, if there ever was a year that employers thought they could win an argument for a freeze, this was it.
But after years of flat wages growth, the commission, while granting stressed industries a reasonable pause, has assessed that a modest rise can be justified.