Living wage central to our self-respect


Professor Marilyn Lake



This was originally published in The Age Friday 7 September 2012.

In 1924, when feminist activist Alice Henry came back to Australia after working for the Women’s Trade Union League in the United States, she was pleased to tell an old friend that she was travelling on an Australian ship, whose workers’ conditions—their hours, accommodation and wages—were up to the Australian standard. ‘‘I do feel a deep sense of self-respect,’’ she wrote, ‘‘in knowing that those who are contributing to my welfare and my comfort are just as well off as I am.’’ Australian self-respect once depended not on how many gold medals we won at the Olympics but on the knowledge that our fellow citizens were as well paid and well treated as ourselves.

This should not be surprising. The concept of a decent living wage was an Australian invention. Other nations hailed us for this humanitarian idea. It was a distinctive achievement that we should be proud of and rally to defend.

The idea of the living wage attracted world attention in the early 20th century. It was humanitarian, it was just, it recognised the dignity of workers and the equality of citizens. In now suggesting that the wages of Australian workers might be reduced to the lowest levels paid in other mining countries, such as South Africa, Gina Rinehart should be condemned, not Rinehart should be condemned, not just as heartless and reactionary, but un-Australian in her core values.

Other nations celebrate their national traditions and core values. Why are Australian traditions so little appreciated? Australia pioneered the practice of defining wages in terms of the sum required to afford people a decent standard of living, rather than as the least amount that employers might pay. The living wage was defined in opposition to starvation wages and slave labour. Human needs were given explicit priority over the maximising of profits. We decided in the late 19th century that decent wage levels should be enforced by governments through arbitration courts and wage boards. People came from around the world—from France and Germany, from Britain and the US—to see these Australian innovations for themselves. They were impressed at the results and publicised and emulated the outcomes back home.

In 1911, an American professor of sociology and economics, M. B. Hammond, took a year’s leave from his university to investigate the effectiveness of Australian experiments in prescribing decent wages and limiting working hours. He had to travel south to Australia to see these things, because nowhere else, not in Europe or Asia, had such advanced legislation been introduced across such a vast territory. He was mightily impressed with Australian experiments, noting the general prosperity and wellbeing of the people, writing about what Australia was doing in numerous articles and lecturing about it at Harvard.

In particular, Hammond hailed the pioneering work of the president of the Commonwealth Arbitration Court, H. B. Higgins, who led the way in explaining the principles underpinning the Australian living wage. ‘‘He has certainly expressed, at greater length and with greater clearness than has anyone else,’’ wrote Hammond, ‘‘the ideals which have animated the Australian people and the Australian lawmakers in placing on the statute books the body of social legislation which has drawn the eyes of all the world to Australia, and which marks the most notable experiment yet made in social democracy.’’ Higgins explained that his basic idea was to treat workers as human beings.

The living wage was one of Australia’s distinctive contributions to world history, along with women’s political rights. Gina Rinehart and her political supporters must surely be ignorant of these distinctively Australian traditions, of our achievement in fashioning a social democracy that drew the eyes of the world to Australia. These national traditions symbolised our early commitment to the ideal of equality of opportunity, the refusal of hereditary privilege and gross inequalities in wealth and position.

Initially restricted to white Australians, equality of opportunity and the prospect of a living wage were extended, after many years of struggle, to Australians of all ethnic backgrounds. Talk of introducing restrictive economic zones to enable mining companies to employ contract labour on lesser wages in inferior conditions is contrary to all that Australians have worked for over 100 years. Once in Australia, all workers should have access to good working conditions and decent wages, sufficient to sustain them as Australian citizens.

Professor Marilyn Lake is Charles La Trobe professor in history at La Trobe University.