CANBERRA -- As the penalty rate cut debate rages on, Australia's trade unions and the federal Labor party are opening up a new front in the industrial relations argument with a new push to raise the minimum wage.
Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus will use her National Press Club speech on Wednesday to officially call for a $45-a-week boost to the minimum wage. The ACTU said it would be "an historic increase" and bring the annual minimum wage to $37,420.
"Building economic security for the lowest paid workers in our society is at the core of the ACTU's objectives, and increasing the minimum wage is one of the most effective tools available to achieve this goal," McManus said.
"Australia's minimum wage has been forced down to dangerously low levels when compared to average wages -- stifling economic security for workers and further entrenching inequality which is now at a 70-year high."
The minimum wage is currently $17.70 per hour or $672.70 per 38-hour week, according to the Fair Work Ombudsman. The ACTU will push to raise that to $18.89 per hour or $717.70 per week.
"According to the OECD, the benchmark for an effective minimum wage is 60 percent of average wages. Our claim will move us towards this target," McManus said.
Labor is currently pushing the Coalition government to oppose the recent Fair Work Commission decision to cut weekend and holiday penalty rates for workers in the retail, hospitality, fast food and pharmacy industries. Labor, the Greens and crossbenchers are rallying behind a bill that would legally protect penalty rates from being lowered, and while recent backflips by the likes of Derryn Hinch and One Nation mean the legislation will likely pass the Senate, the Government's lower-house majority means the bill has little chance of coming into law.
Labor leader Bill Shorten has thrown his weight behind the minimum wage boost, saying he would make a submission to that effect this week.
Brendan O'Connor, Labor's shadow minister for employment and workplace relations, was at pains during a Wednesday press conference to stress the minimum wage push isn't meant to offset the penalty rates cut, due to come into effect on July 1, but said workers needed more help.
"We've got inequality in this country at a 75-year high, we've got people struggling, the lowest wage growth in a generation. We'd hope the Commission takes the advice we've made to it, in arguing that we don't want to see a decline in... the proportion of the wage to the average wage," he said.
O'Connor declined to specifically back the ACTU's push for a $45 wage hike, saying Labor had not decided on a reasonable boost to the minimum wage, but said the number needed to rise.
"It's higher than the claims they've made in the past," he said of the ACTU's number.
"We want them to understand we need a decent working wage and we don't want a working poor in this country. As to what dollar figure or percentage they come up with, we want to make sure they have regard for people struggling and wage growth is so low."
O'Connor said Labor would keep pushing to protect penalty rates, despite the prospect of losing the fight in the House of Representatives.
"We're never going to give up on supporting these workers, we're never going to give up on this Private Members' Bill currently before the House and the Senate," he said.
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