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AIRC gives $17 weekly pay rise to workers on federal awards.

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Tuesday, 7 June 2005



ELEANOR HALL:  We go first to Melbourne where the judges of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission have today delivered an historic judgment: the industrial court’s last ever decision on minimum wage levels for Australians.


Under the federal government’s new round of industrial relations changes, the commission’s traditional wage fixing powers will be handed over to a new tribunal—the Fair Pay Commission. Today, though, the judges were not letting the sense of occasion interrupt their work as they delivered a $17 a week pay rise to workers on federal awards, an amount mid-way between the pay rises that unions and employers had been asking for. But while it was business as usual inside the court today, outside union leaders were more vocal than usual about the decision.


Alison Caldwell was at the commission in Melbourne for the World Today and filed this report.


ALISON CALDWELL:   It was business as usual for the seven industrial relations commissioners as they delivered what is expected to be their last minimum wage decision—no fanfare, no interviews and certainly no farewell speeches.


To a packed courtroom, Justice Judge Giudice diligently read out the reasons for the IRC’s decision—that Australia’s lowest paid workers would receive a $17 a week pay rise. He said a 3.6 per cent increase would strike the right balance between fair pay and Australia’s continued economic growth. Unions wanted a pay rise of $26.60 a week, the federal government would agree to $11 while the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry argued that just $10 a week was justified. While welcoming the decision, the historical significance of the occasion was not lost on ACTU Secretary Greg Combet.


GREG COMBET: The union movement is very pleased to once again achieve a decent increase in minimum wages for working people in this country. Of course we didn’t achieve the entirety of our claim but we very rarely do in these proceedings. What we do is go in and fight very hard to achieve a decent increase for people and, on this occasion, we are pleased to achieve an increase of $17 a week.


The point needs to be made that it is this process, through an independent tribunal, with a long history of balancing economic factors and the needs of working people, that has delivered this increase for people once again. Of course this is likely to be, given the industrial relations changes announced by John Howard, the last occasion upon which there will be a national wage case of this nature. And it is clear that the purpose for that change is to achieve lower increases in minimum wages for working people.


ALISON CALDWELL:   You will have the Fair Pay Commission from next year possibly. How do you think that will compare?


GREG COMBET: Well, anyone that has to call a new institution the Fair Pay Commission and draw upon George Orwell, is obviously setting up something which is designed to reduce living standards. That is what the Fair Pay Commission is all about; it’s to get rid of an independent process, an independent tribunal; it’s to try and get the unions out of the picture fighting for working people; put it in the hands of conservative economists who are only going to consider neo-classical, economic theories that if you award one dollar in a pay increase for people you are going to lose jobs—that’s the only consideration they’ll be looking at. There’s no economic substance to their argument but that economic argument is being given legislative force by the government.


ALISON CALDWELL:   The full bench of the IRC was critical of the government for failing to provide information as to the employment effects of wage rises, information which the IRC says would have been highly relevant. The federal government didn’t send a representative to the hearing. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry was there. Workplace Relations spokesman, Scott Barklamb.


SCOTT BARKLAMB: Whilst it’s welcome that the $17 is less than the $19 of the preceding year, it’s still vastly discontinuous with the positions of employers and those put by the range of government parties around that table. We think there could be, should be and will be a superior approach to setting minimum wages in Australia in the future.


ALISON CALDWELL:   The IRC was critical of the government for withholding information about some economic figures. Why didn’t the government have that sort of information? Why didn’t employers have that kind of information? Aren’t you basically destroying the process by withholding that sort of information?


SCOTT BARKLAMB:   Just to be clear on that information—each party puts its case and brings forward the information it sees it necessary to bring forward to prosecute its claim. The commission asked for something different this year—something of a stocktake on its performance over the preceding eight or nine year period. The availability or otherwise of that data will have been determined by its existence. I certainly don’t see that any parties withheld anything germane to the current decision, from the commission.


Whilst the commission has exhausted its best efforts to examine the data, and has certainly conducted itself with fairness and equanimity to both parties, the statement today makes clear that various key economic conclusions have been reached and are not open to further argument from parties even when they reflect very well accepted economic orthodoxy from elsewhere in the world. And they are precisely the things we want to reopen with the Fair Pay Commission when it is created, and that said, I think the ACTU should wait and see the design of the Fair Pay Commission. We are confident it will operate with full equality, independence and economic rigour.


ELEANOR HALL: The Workplace Relations Manager with the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Scott Barklamb, with Alison Caldwell in Melbourne.