A major business group says the minimum wage must remain frozen until mid-2021 if people are to get back into work as the pandemic eases.
Australia on Thursday posted its worst employment figures on record as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, with nearly 600,000 people losing their jobs and the unemployment rate spiking to a five-year high of 6.2 per cent.
“We should take stock of yesterday’s confronting unemployment and underemployment figures,” Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive James Pearson said.
“This is not time to be talking about wage increases, when hundreds of thousands of Australians have lost their jobs or can’t get enough hours of work.”
In its submission to the Fair Work Commission’s annual review of the minimum wage, ACCI argues 2020 is one of those “extraordinary years” in which minimum wages should not be increased.
“We cannot afford to place even more jobs at risk by making the cost of employment higher,” Mr Pearson said.
“In particular, we cannot afford a 4 per cent increase, which would be the highest increase in a decade, as has been proposed by the ACTU.”
ACCI said Australia already had one of the highest minimum wages in the world and had consistently risen by more than prices for a decade, particularly in the past three years.
The minimum wage is $740.80 a week.
The ACTU has called its proposed 4 per cent increase “modest”. It would lift the minimum weekly wage to $770.43 and the hourly rate from $19.49 to $20.27
But ACCI said employees on minimum wages would retain increased purchasing power, even with no increase in 2020, and all indications were that inflation would remain low.
Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter made his views clear earlier this week.
“To propose a very substantial increase to the world’s highest minimum wage, at precisely the time that businesses are at the weakest point, perhaps ever in Australia’s history, I think is just a wrongheaded submission,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Fair Work Commission will hear final arguments in relation to an Australian Industry Group application to vary the Fast Food Industry Award to implement short-term changes aimed at saving businesses and jobs during the crisis.
Ai Group chief executive Innes Willox said the changes were supported by the Australian government and were negotiated with the ACTU and the Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers’ Union – the main union that represents fast food employees.
“The fast food industry … has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic,” Mr Willox said.
“The proposed award changes would apply only to employers and employees that are not entitled to the JobKeeper scheme.”
They provide increased flexibility in the areas of part-time employment, annual leave and close downs.
The variations will allow employers to ask employees to take annual leave where it will help avoid job losses, albeit with a right for workers to refuse the request on reasonable grounds, and to require employees to take leave when a business is temporarily closed because of the pandemic.