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Cheap foreign labour undermines Australia's pride

Date

Marilyn Lake

Gina Rinehart is ignorant that our nation invented the idea of a decent living wage.

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 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 coloured 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.

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

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49 comments

  • If I was a clever Sussex St strategist, I'd make damn sure that any future election advertising featured some footage of Tony & Gina at that '[ditch] the witch' rally in Canberra that Alan Jones organised, a bit of the 'Workchoices is dead, buried cremated...' and finished with Ms R extolling the virtues of 'African pay rates'....
    If I was clever...

    Commenter
    QuinnyS1
    Location
    Dapto
    Date and time
    September 07, 2012, 8:43AM
    • I reckon...all they have to do is a 30 second piece showing Abbott's many, many gaffes, one after the other...the Costa Concordia was the boat that didn't get through, women will never approach equal representation to men, abortion is tantamount to murder, women's right to withhold sex needs to be moderated, his criticism of a dying man...the list is endless.

      You don't even need to carefully snip the context (a la no carbon tax)...the man is that inept that he puts it in perfect context all on his own...no manipulation required!

      Commenter
      Kimbo
      Date and time
      September 07, 2012, 9:41AM
    • Ageed Quinny and Kimbo, not that hard surely to expose these tyrants for what they are. I hope the strategists are working overtime rather than being defensive as usual.
      The longer Abbott remains there and the more Gina and co spruike off they better chances for a fairer OZ. how the average voter can support such policies is beyond my logic.

      Commenter
      A country gal
      Location
      Vientiane
      Date and time
      September 07, 2012, 3:10PM
  • Ms Lake may have a good vision of history, but lacks the comprehensive skills to ascertain what is being said in the present. I ask is this a deliberate miscomprehension, or does she not understand the concept? Rinehart has not suggested lowering wages at all, rather raising them through lower personal tax rates for those willing to work and live in remote areas of Australia's north. Is this really this hard to understand Ms Lake? Really? For an academic?

    Commenter
    YodaSG1
    Location
    Brisbane
    Date and time
    September 07, 2012, 9:05AM
    • Ms Lake and all the people who refuse to see the real issue with CMFEU thugs fighting Grocon in Melbourne are guilty of only seeing what they want to see. Mining and construction (e.g. desal plant in Wonthaggi) wages in Australia have got so high that we are no longer talking about "decent living" wages anymore. How do you justify unskilled workers being paid more than $100,000 a year? They have got to a point where Australia is no longer viable as an investment destination. Ms Reinhardt's mistake was not making it clear that she did not suggest that Australian workers be paid $2 a day like workers in Africa. She was only using it as a comparison.

      Commenter
      hbloz
      Date and time
      September 07, 2012, 1:00PM
    • Depending on whatever arrangements have been made for them or whomever it is they know, there are workers in the construction and mining industry who are little more than on-site 'dogs bodies' who earn $100,000 plus p/a. Guys who literally bring in the morning papers, stack the biscuits in the tea room and empty a few bins. These guys get paid more than nurses and teachers. These sectors are so far out of whack it is mind boggling. Gina is only concerned with her wage bills in this instance however.

      Commenter
      Ferris
      Location
      Ringwood
      Date and time
      September 07, 2012, 2:31PM
  • Very true, but I think she is too generous in assuming that the minds, and I use that word advisedly, of the greedy, narcissistic and second rate Australian elites could in fact be changed by the gaining of knowledge or wisdom. Generally speaking the Gina Rinehart's of the world are so self-obsessed and convinced of the purity and selflessness of their avarice that they are immune to considerations wider than their own self satisfaction. Other than that, the article is a pretty good summary of the history that is now under challenge by the millionaire and billionaire bogans who believe that their wealth, however acquired, entitles them to run the country in their interests.

    Commenter
    Lesm
    Location
    Balmain
    Date and time
    September 07, 2012, 9:15AM
    • I was going to reply to your fatuous statements yesterday but didn't consider it was worth my time. However, today I decided to tell you exactly what I think of you. People like you and the silly woman who wrote this farrago of stupidity are well suited. You couldn't tell truth from fiction if you tried. How many jobs and investment have you or this academic provided for Australians? How many times have you been publicly castigated for comments you didn't even make? The Gina Rineharts of the world are the wealth creators, not only for themselves but for their employees as well. Mining workers are well compensated for their work in remote areas. Why don't you try it before commenting on something you obviously know nothing about.

      Commenter
      mags
      Location
      Queensland
      Date and time
      September 07, 2012, 9:58AM
    • mags

      "How many jobs and investment have you or this academic provided for Australians?"

      Firstly, your question a good example of the irrational, emotive nonsense spouted by tories in place of an argument. How the number of jobs lesm has or has not created relevant to the arguments lesm was making? Your fatuous, personal attack on lesm's character is a classic example of "playing the man, not the ball" and you should be thoroughly ashamed of yourself. After all, these forums are supposed to be for GROWN-UPS.

      Now, a lesson in economics:

      Gina owns a lot of shares in a mining corporation and lives off the wealth produced by the employees of that corporation, She has never created a job in her life for a very good reason: EMPLOYERS DO NOT CREATE JOBS, and they certainly don't employ people simply because it is cheap to do so.

      Wealth is created by human beings expending their labour power in transforming raw materials into goods and services of real utility value. Now, if you look at the what Gina's corporation does, you soon discover that there is no way that it can produce much in the way of wealth. Simply digging up dirt does very little to increase the value of that dirt. Almost all of the "potential" value of the dirt is "realised" AFTER Gina as sold the dirt. If Gina's employees accept lower wages so that Gina can sell her dirt to foreign manufacturers even cheaper, this simply reduces demand in the domestic market and gives foreign manufacturers an unfair competitive advantage over Australian firms.

      It's a matter of debate whether the net effect of mining on our national wealth is negative or positive but, either way, there is not much in it. Gina would ensure it is negative.

      Commenter
      v
      Date and time
      September 07, 2012, 12:08PM
  • Its disappointing to see professionals take the $2 a day comment literally as a wish for Aussie wages. That was never the intent and you would do well to listen to the message, not look for potential bombshells that can be misconstrued. A Professor of History at La Trobe Uni is a long way away from this writer who runs a small tourism business thats been established for 40 years. If my employment circumstance was as a wage worker there would be a national outcry, because I work 10 hours a day seven days a week, by choice, with no holiday pay, penalty rates, rostered days off, rostered breaks, no super, leave loading, no money-for-nothing whatsoever. I do this because I am self employed, and although I need workers, our hours of operation means labour costs would take over three quarters of our turnover. You should listen to the Gina message, it reflects a vast bombshell of an issue all over Australia, not about exploiting workers, but destroying jobs.

    Commenter
    Bevan of Qld
    Date and time
    September 07, 2012, 9:15AM

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