70 cent debate - the wage battle continues
70 cent debate - the wage battle continues

Wage battle continues

By MEL MARTIN

FOR minimum wage earners, an extra $26 each week would make a big difference, but such an increase could impact on small businesses like Jamaica Blue at Park Beach Plaza.

"We'd love to give our staff more money, and the workers would love it, too, but it would definitely impact on our business," owner of Jamaica Blue Charles Tzannes said.

This week the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) is considering a minimum wage increase.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is seeking an increase of $26.60 per week for the Australians workers who depend on minimum wage.

This increase would raise the minimum wage from $12.30 to $13 per hour, or from $24,370 to $25,757 per year for hospitality workers, cleaners, sales assistants, and health and community workers who work under the Federal award.

But the Federal Government, who has opposed every minimum wage rise since its election in 1996, say such an increase is unsustainable, supporting an $11 increase instead.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) agree, saying the ACTU's claim is economically irresponsible, and is asking the commission not to increase the minimum wage by more than $10 per week.

"Whilst the Australian economy is continuing to grow, growth has moderated. Both economic responsibility and logic dictate a lower level of national wage increase than the record increases of previous years, given that economic growth is now at a lower level than previous years," ACCI Chief Executive Peter Hendy said.

North Coast Regional Organiser of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union Steve Klaassen said this consistent economic growth justified the increase.

"It's a very affordable and reasonable award," Mr Klaassen said.

"The Howard Government keeps telling us we have a strong economy, so we believe this increase would not cost jobs. And workers are entitled to that $26," he said.

For Mr Tzannes any increase in minimum wage would mean putting his prices up.

"We don't like putting our prices up, but in the long run we'd have to pass it on and the customers would have to wear it, even if it's just a minimal increase," he said.

Meanwhile, as the IRC considers these submissions, the Federal Government is considering sweeping changes to Federal workplace laws when it gains control of the Senate in July, under which almost all workers would be covered by national industrial laws.

This is worrying the ACTU as it would mean government control over minimum wages.

Currently in Australia, minimum wages are independently reviewed each year by the IRC who, in determining increases consider and balance the needs of low paid Australians, the state of the national economy, productivity and employment issues, and the capacity of businesses to pay wage increases.

But Prime Minister John Howard said the current system of 2300 Federal and 1700 State awards which overlapped was too complex, costly and inefficient, and while he said he would prefer co-operation from the States, the Federal Government would do what is necessary to move towards a more 'streamlined' system.

"Our preference is for a single system to be agreed between Commonwealth and the States as was the case with Victoria's referral of power in 1996," Mr Howard said.

NSW Premier Bob Carr said he would fight to keep a State-based industrial relations system.

He said that more lockouts had occurred under the Federal system and that Victoria, which complied with the Federal system, had double the number of industrial disputes compared to NSW.

The ACTU has called on the Federal Government to guarantee that minimum wages will be set independently of the political process.

"The ACTU strongly supports the current system in which the Australian Industrial Relations Commission independently determines minimum wages following extensive hearing of evidence and submissions concerning economic factors and the needs of low-paid workers," ACTU secretary Greg Combet said.

The Federal Government, however, has refused to give any guarantees, saying that the new mechanism may well be another independent body.



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