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Church advocates higher wages for Australian families who are doing it tough as real wages slump

Wages: “As a result of the decisions over the past two decades, what was an adequate wage to support working families in 1997 is now only enough for a single person without family responsibilities.”

LOW-income families have not been “sufficiently protected by the decisions in the annual wage reviews”, a Church delegation told the Fair Work Commission on May 15.

The Fair Work Act has “failed to provide an adequate wages safety net for low-paid workers with family responsibilities” or “alleviate the poverty and disadvantage suffered by them and their families”.

John Fernon and Brian Lawrence appeared before the expert panel of the Fair Work Commission, criticising the current support for low-income families.

Their oral submission on May 15 drew upon the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s written submission in March. 

In the written submission, the Church called for the minimum wage to be increased from $719.20 per week to $760 per week, making the minimum wage $20 per hour. 

It also called for award wages to be increased by $31 per week and 3.7 per cent for wages above $837.40 per week. 

Mr Fernon told the panel that the provision in the Fair Work Act for a safety net of fair minimum wages required that the commission fix a minimum wage that provided a decent living for the low-paid and their families. 

But decisions over a 20-year period had seen the relative value of the minimum wage fall significantly, he said.

“As a result of the decisions over the past two decades, what was an adequate wage to support working families in 1997 is now only enough for a single person without family responsibilities.”

Mr Lawrence, one of the Church’s advocates for Australian workers over that period, told the panel the minimum wage situation was now “in crisis”. 

And it’s not just low-income families struggling; the sluggish real wage growth has hit everyone.

For the past five years of data, 2013 to 2018, real wage growth has increased annually by only about half a per cent according to a parliamentary report.

For someone on Australia’s median income this translates to an expected annual increase of about $420 in 2018.

In comparison, the five years before that, 2008 to 2013, saw about 1.8 per cent increase per year – a $1500 annual increase for a median income worker in 2018.

According to both the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Treasury, the main reasons for this growth decline included an outbreak of under-employment, a decline in inflation and the effects of the fading mining boom.

All of these slow-down effects have trickled through the economy and exacerbated the struggles of those who were already doing it tough.

“We seek the alleviation of poverty and disadvantage among working families by progressive steps towards a living wage and a decent standard of living for low-paid working families,” Mr Lawrence said. 

He also proposed “the progressive adjustment of wage rates set for award classifications so that they reflect a fair level of remuneration for the skills and responsibilities of the workers covered by those classifications”. 

The Church’s push is part of a collective outcry against the current state of the minimum wage and financial supports like Newstart.

One area of concern was in rural and regional Australia.

The Country Women’s Association expressed its support to raise the Newstart allowance. 

CWA president Tanya Cameron said it was impossible to live on $40 a day in rural and regional areas.

But even so, more than 700,000 Australians do rely on $40 a day to survive.

Other Christian groups like Anglicare have called for reform too – their housing report found 98 per cent of rental properties were unaffordable to minimum-wage workers.

These factors all contributed to the entrenchment of low-income families and harmed any chance of changing their living situation.

But they also put pressure on existing crises like Australia’s record high homelessness rate of 116,000 and other issues such as mental health.

Speaking before the recent federal election chair of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Social Justice, Mission and Service Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen said the needs of workers struggling to earn a living wage should be a priority for all Australians. 

“At this time in the electoral cycle especially, it is important that the Church speak up on behalf of those who are trying to support their families, but are increasingly finding it difficult to do so because of the unwillingness of politicians and the Fair Work Commission to adequately address this critical issue,” Bishop Long said.

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