Civil servants demand a living wage
Standing side by side with over 5,000 public sector colleagues outside Western Australia’s parliament on August 17 was a proud moment.
The anger was palpable and the voices loud. It was the first time in 20 years of working in government services that we had joined forces to demand a living wage. The collaboration came from the Public Sector Alliance, formed last year, bringing together unions in the sector in a bid to break the Labor Party’s wage cap policy.
Public sector workers imposed a six-year salary cap because, the argument went, the budget had to go back into the black.
WA’s consumer price index of 7.4% is the highest in the country. However, wage growth has been the slowest and the impact on workers has been disastrous.
Meanwhile, the government is posting a record budget surplus of $5.7 billion. With characteristic arrogance, Premier Mark McGowan guessed that other state treasurers would be “green with envy.”
Despite this and other projected overages, McGowan offered a paltry 2.5% as his starting offer with a signing “bonus” of 0.25% or $1,000 (bribe).
Prior to the Alliance rally, McGowan raised his offer to 3% with a one-time $2,500 “cost of living payment” in an effort to prevent the action.
It had the opposite effect.
Speaker after speaker, they told devastating stories about their work and life situations. Reflecting the sentiment of the crowd, United Workers Union delegate Cindy Logan said, “We sucked their wage policy too long: 3% is still a pay cut.
Logan, a full-time educational assistant, spoke passionately about her job but said she would be forced to leave if her salary did not increase. “Love doesn’t pay my bills,” she said, adding that her rent had gone up by $120 a fortnight.
“My adult children now give me $120 a fortnight to keep a roof over my head. If it wasn’t for them, I’d be that person living in a car.”
Julie, a nurse and single mother of three, recounted a similar experience. Half of his income now goes into rent. “Wage cuts over the past four years have brought everyone to the brink of destruction,” she said. “We are beyond exhaustion.”
She described the impact of frontline work during the pandemic, with staff shortages and watching people die. “They have to respect us.”
A representative from the United Professional Firefighters Union recounted the daily risks involved in keeping the community safe. “We don’t generate any income,” he said, “but we save lives. We render a humanitarian service. We can even lose our lives.
“We are exposing our bodies to temperatures that melt glass, shatter windows and ignite combustible materials solely from radiant heat. We do this even as our conditions are under attack from all sides and our wages are reduced”.
While the government touts firefighters as heroes, its budget cuts mean staff shortages, a deteriorating and inadequate fleet and half-functioning fire stations.
Melissa, child protection worker and CSA delegate, pointed out that women make up 75% of workers in the Department of Communities and nearly 73% of the entire public sector.
Despite the state’s wealth, the gender pay gap in WA is 21.3%, the highest in the country.
“We are tired of saying goodbye to our experienced colleagues as they leave in droves for higher paying jobs,” Melissa said. “We’re tired of having to fill gaps where we can’t recruit new employees because the pay rates aren’t competitive.”
Women must be paid wages comparable to men, Melissa said, adding: “We will no longer accept your talk of supporting women in the workplace.”
As the firefighter noted, most government employees do not produce income. But they operate state services: health, education, community services, public transport, etc.
Our work makes day-to-day operations possible, and across the country, government employees are demanding recognition of this vital role.
Finally, the need for a return to industry-wide bargaining is raised at the Jobs and Skills Summit.
Workers challenge the myth that rising wages cause inflation.
left green stands with workers who fight for better wages and conditions, for better staffing and resources, for a transfer of benefits from the pockets of the few to the many.
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[Janet Parker is member of the Civil Service Association.]