Australians are currently facing a working landscape that has seen both dramatic growth and frustrating stagnation over the past few decades, ACTU President Sally McManus explained to Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (SA Branch) Annual Delegates Conference earlier this month.
“Both income inequalities and wealth inequalities have increased,” she said. “This is a very different type of society than the one that we, as union members, have fought for over a period of time.”
She says the problems are rooted in the use of ‘trickle-down’ economics which theoretically see workers earn more as those at a higher level earn more.
However, after 30 years, all that trickle-down economics has been able to produce is inequality at a 70-year high, more insecure work and record low wage growth.
“The economists say it’s weird, they don’t know what’s going on. Profits are going up, productivity is going up, but wages are staying the same,” said Ms McManus. “What they don’t understand is what we all know: employers will give pay increases when the law requires them to.”
And that’s the problem the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is currently trying to tackle with the new ‘Change the Rules’ campaign. The idea is to update legislation surrounding wages and workers’ rights in an attempt to address the inequality that currently upsets the workforce.
To improve Australian working conditions, Ms McManus says the government needs to focus on tax law reform and increased bargaining powers for employees.
Currently, around 732 big companies do not pay tax in Australia and instead use their resources to find ways around paying tax. The Turnbull government believes this will encourage companies to increase worker pay and employment numbers.
“This is classic trickle-down economics,” argues Ms McManus. “But the thing is, there’s been 30 years of this experiment and it hasn’t worked because they’ve kept it. They’ve kept that money.”
A gradual change of laws has also seen employees slowly lose their ability to influence terms of their employment, such as job security, renewed contracts and pay rates. Ms McManus says that workers are no longer able to enforce their rights and keep their employers in check without engaging in long and expensive legal processes that may not even be successful.
“It’s one thing to have rights, it’s another thing to enforce them, and that’s how we get basic fairness.”
Her sentiments are not just of a union but indeed have been echoed by major non-government organisations such as St Vincent de Paul Society.
In presenting his opinions on the current structure of the Australian workforce at the recent ACTU Conference in Brisbane, ‘St Vinnies’ National CEO Dr John Falzon also painted a picture of growing wage disparity and struggle between the wealthy and the people without power.
“I’ve listened hard and I’m yet to hear the sound of the wealth trickling down. What I hear is the sound of the excluded still waiting,” Dr Falzon said.
Ms McManus ended her address encouraging nurses, midwives and personal care workers to ensure they are engaged in the terms and conditions of their employment and in actively working as a collective towards a fairer future.
“We’ve always seen ourselves as the country of a fair go, of egalitarianism, but that’s been slowly ebbed away over time.” Ms McManus said.
It’s time to Change the Rules.