The Australian Council of Trade Unions this week called for the minimum wage to be scrapped and replaced by a much higher “living wage”.
This, the peak body of the union movement argued, would help bring three million Australians out of poverty.
The proposal was greeted with a mixed response.
Some, including many readers of The New Daily, welcomed the idea, arguing that $18.29 an hour, or $36,000 a year if you work full time, was simply not enough.
Others, including the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, argued the Australian minimum wage was already the third highest in the world in dollar terms, and pushing it any higher would make it “really hard” for small businesses to maintain jobs.
While the business argument may be valid, one expert told The New Daily the problem of poverty in Australia was real and should be taken seriously.
Roger Wilkins, deputy director of the Melbourne Institute, said “significant numbers of people tend to think that there are lazy poor people”.
“There’s very little dole bludgers really,” he said, adding that almost one in three Australians will live in poverty at some time in their lives.
While he said most would experience only short periods of poverty, he said single parent families, pensioners who did not own their own house and people with disabilities or mental illnesses were particularly vulnerable to long bouts.
What is poverty in Australia?
The poverty line for a single adult in Australia is an income of $426, compared with the median weekly income of $931.
One person who recently experienced poverty is Yiannis (not his real name) who, this year, spent several months unemployed.
He said over those months in which he tried to find work he drew down on his savings while waiting for Centrelink to process his application.
He was kept waiting two-and-a-half months to receive a payment from Centrelink, by which point he’d run out of savings and had to borrow money to continue to pay rent and bills.
“I didn’t think I was living below the poverty line, when I actually was,” he told The New Daily.
“You feel like you’ve got to miss out on things because you don’t have the money to do it. You have to always think about the cost of everything, it becomes a nightmare.
“People think it’s a choice of not wanting to do things, but if you don’t have money you can’t get a job and if you can’t get a job you’re not going to be able to get money.”
Assad, who also spoke to The New Daily on condition of anonymity, said he too was unaware he lived below the poverty line.
“Looking back, if I had known about my current status, I may have been a bit more cautious in how I spent and organised the money,” he said.
Assad’s parents came to Australia as humanitarian migrants in the 1990s.
His parents had grown up poor and had always been poor, he said.
“Mum would always find a way to get her nice shoes or a new book to not feel poor. She would always say ‘never think you’re poor, no matter what you want, you can get it’.”
Wages at new lows
Wage growth is at lows not seen for decades in Australia, while a report released by Anglicare Australia found entry-level work for many is becoming increasingly difficult to find and that many in work do not get enough work each week.
Almost 712,000 Australians were unemployed in May, while another 1.1 million of us reported they were underemployed. Up to five people are now competing for every entry-level job in Australia.
But moves by the federal government to tighten access to welfare and allow penalty rates on Sunday to be cut have been attacked by some groups as likely to only further entrench poverty.
John Falzon, CEO of charitable organisation St Vincent de Paul, told The New Daily that if the government were serious about addressing poverty, it needed to listen to people who experience it.
He said plans to cut welfare payments will only increase child poverty.
“We have as a nation turned our backs at the building blocks of a fairer nation.”