The recent call by the Institute of Public Affairs for the abolition of Australia’s minimum wage has been framed in terms of the dignity of work and the flexibility of workers (The Age, April 7). But can work truly have dignity if workers are reduced to penury? If labour is thus degraded so are the labourers who perform it. It was precisely to secure recognition of the dignity of workers as human beings – and their needs and rights as human beings – that Victoria introduced the first legal minimum wage in the world in 1896. In 1907, as President of the Arbitration Court, H.B. Higgins defined the minimum as a living wage, sufficient to meet the variety of needs of a person living in a civilised community.
It was one of Australia’s great democratic innovations and recognised as such around the world. Visitors came from Britain, China, France, Germany and the United States to see the new laws regarding wage-fixing machinery in operation. A minimum wage was gradually adopted by most other countries and inscribed as an international convention by the International Labour Organisation in 1928. On all sides the advent of the minimum wage was hailed as a crucial marker of modern civilisation. Why?
The idea of a minimum wage recognised workers as human beings and equal citizens, rather than treating them as commodities or mere units in the cost of production. It came at the end of a century in which workers had been slaves, or treated as slaves, coerced into contracts that denied their freedom, forced into unpaid or underpaid labour. When Alfred Deakin, a member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly in 1896 and soon to become one of Australia’s great Liberal prime ministers, spoke in support of the introduction of a minimum wage, he said it was not only a matter of social justice, but essential to our equal dignity and mutual respect as Australian citizens.
We were not joined simply by economic transactions. Citizenship entailed a duty of care and relations of reciprocity and mutual obligation. It would demean us all, said Deakin, if those who made our food and clothing or tended to our comforts and wellbeing were treated as inferior beings, unworthy of our care. The leading feminist journalist, Alice Henry, made a similar observation when she returned from working for the National Women’s Trade Union League in Chicago in 1924. The United States had yet to introduce a national minimum wage. That would come with President Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1938.
Travelling back to Australia, Henry felt proud, as she wrote to an American friend, that the Australian seamen who manned her ship and those who attended to her comfort were not treated as menials, but enjoyed decent working conditions and were paid good wages. They were her fellow citizens and she would have been ashamed if their work had not been remunerated at a level that allowed them to live with dignity. "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."
Today, 90 years later, thousands of workers who contribute to the welfare and comfort of others, including many who work in hospitals, childcare centres and aged care homes, traditionally the work of women, are demeaned by being paid a pittance. Research into the situation of Victorian childcare workers has found that their very low wages, that recognise neither the importance of the work they perform, or the skill and experience of the workers, feel demoralised and humiliated, akin to social outcasts. Rather than raise their wages and provide the government support that would make childcare more affordable, some commentators have suggested we should import childcare workers and pay them $200 a week. Surely Australian self-respect demands that we support campaigns for decent wages and working conditions, here and elsewhere, not collaborate in the exploitation of contract labour, forcing workers into destitution.
Australia led the way in defining the minimum wage as a living wage sufficient to enable workers to live in comfort in a civilised community. Its leading architect, H.B. Higgins, was, like his fellow Liberal Alfred Deakin, a member of the Victorian Parliament in 1896 that saw the introduction of this world-historic reform, hailed internationally as the most notable experiment yet made in social democracy. When Higgins visited the United States in 1914, he was besieged by reformers, keen to seek his advice. The question of the minimum wage was in the air, as one activist noted, and everyone looked to the Australian example.
The question of the minimum wage is in the air again. It is to be hoped that those keen to destroy it recognise that it is more than a safety net below which wages cannot fall. It is a symbol of the values that Australians once held dear and our mutual regard as citizens. Its history reminds us that it was a proud Liberal achievement, one that present-day Liberals should also be proud to acknowledge and uphold. It is an Australian tradition worth preserving.
Marilyn Lake is a professor in history at the University of Melbourne, researching the international history of Australian democracy.