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ACCI says good company profits are no basis for general wage rise; ACTU says employees are not sharing in the country's strong economic growth.

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HAMISH ROBERTSON: Well, there is growing evidence that Australian business has seldom had it so good. Profit figures show that Australian corporations are recording profit levels not seen in 40 years, but while there is good news for our boardrooms and for shareholders, there is also evidence that the benefits aren't flowing through to employees generally. Marius Benson reports.


MARIUS BENSON:  On the evidence of company figures at the moment, the boardrooms of corporate Australia should be loud with the sounds of champagne corks popping. Profit share is running at 18 per cent, providing profitability not seen since quarterly account figures were first collected 40 years ago. Labour costs have fallen compared with the US market; productivity is growing at 2.7 per cent and profits are continuing on an upward trend that began eight years ago. But Mark Paterson, the Chief Executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which speaks for 350,000 businesses across the country, takes a more sober view of the good times.


MARK PATERSON:  Certainly a number of businesses have been doing reasonably well, but the outlook for Australia and for many Australian businesses is not as rosy as some of those figures might suggest.


MARIUS BENSON: How rosy is it in your assessment?


MARK PATERSON: Certainly going forward to 1999, we will see lower levels of growth than the year that we have just concluded. Certainly I think everyone agrees that we will be unable to sustain 5 per cent GDP growth through 1999, but notwithstanding the pressure coming from overseas, businesses have been performing reasonably well.


MARIUS BENSON: So what is the outlook for profits particularly, in your assessment?


MARK PATERSON: I think it depends on a number of factors. Much of the international experience will influence Australia; the outcome of the current national wage case; the stance taken in relation to interest rates - will all have a substantial effect.


MARIUS BENSON:  Is there room now for greater wage increases?


MARK PATERSON: Our view is not. We have seen very real wage increases granted, both through enterprise bargaining and through the centralised system, and we believe, given the pressure that is going to be brought to bear on Australia from international pressures, that now is not the right time to be granting across-the-board wage increases.


MARIUS BENSON: Mark Paterson of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. And while corporate Australia sees no justification for impatience among wage earners, the ACTU's Assistant Secretary, Greg Combet, says workers are missing out on the economic good times.


GREG COMBET:  Well, it is certainly a very strong economy at the moment and business profits are certainly at a record high, and we believe all the economic indicators really illustrate that low-paid workers in particular should get a share of the economic wealth that is around, and we have our living wage case on at the moment in the Industrial Relations Commission and it is one of the arguments that we are putting to the bench.


MARIUS BENSON: Beyond that case, what will the union movement be doing to press for a larger share for wage earners?


GREG COMBET: Well, in the sector where bargaining takes place, where most union members are employed, or many union members are employed, we've actually been achieving quite substantial real wage gains in some industries, but the marked difference in the last six or seven years is that low-paid workers have been falling further and further behind. They don't have the bargaining power to achieve enterprise agreements and the award system, such as it is now, just hasn't been keeping up with growth in the rest of the economy. So that is why we are pressing very strongly in the living wage case, for low-paid workers to get a substantial boost, and we believe the economy can afford it.