Standing shoulder to shoulder with over 5000 fellow public sector workers outside Western Australia’s parliament house on August 17 was a proud moment.
The anger was palpable and the voices loud. It was the first time in my 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 from the sector in a bid to break Labor’s wages cap policy.
Public sector workers have copped a wage cap over six years because, the argument went, the budget had to get back in the black.
WA’s 7.4% consumer price index is the highest in the country. However, wages growth has been the slowest and the impact on workers has been disastrous.
Meanwhile, the government is boasting a record budget surplus of $5.7 billion. With characteristic arrogance, Premier Mark McGowan guessed other state treasurers would be “green with envy”.
Despite this and further projected surpluses, McGowan offered a paltry 2.5% as a starting offer with a 0.25% or $1000 sign-on “bonus” (bribe).
In the lead up to the Alliance rally, McGowan raised his offer to 3% with a one-off $2500 “cost-of-living payment” in a bid to head off the action.
It had the opposite effect.
Speaker after speaker recounted devastating stories about their working and living situation. Reflecting the crowd’s sentiment, United Workers Union delegate Cindy Logan said: “We’ve sucked up their wages policy too long: 3% is still a pay cut.”
Logan, a full-time education assistant, spoke passionately about her job, but said she would be forced to leave if her wage doesn’t rise. “Love doesn’t pay my bills,” she said, adding her rent had gone up by $120 a fortnight.
“My adult kids are now giving me $120 a fortnight to keep a roof over my head. If it were not for them, I’d be that person living in a car”.
Julie, a nurse and single mum with three kids, recounted a similar experience. Half her income now goes in rent. “The pay cut over the last four years has brought everyone to the brink of destruction,” she said. “We are beyond exhausted.”
She described the impact of working on the front line through the pandemic, with staff shortages and seeing people die. “They need to respect us”.
A United Professional Firefighters Union representative recounted daily risks to keep the community safe. “We generate no revenue,” he said, “but we save lives. We render a humanitarian service. We may even lose our lives.
“We expose our bodies to temperatures that make glass melt, windows explode, and combustible materials ignite just from the radiant heat. We do this even as our conditions are attacked from all sides and our wages cut”.
While the government lauds firefighters as heroes, its budget cuts means staff shortages, a deteriorating and inadequate fleet and fire stations being run at half capacity.
Melissa, child protection worker and CSA delegate, pointed out that women make up 75% of the Department of Communities’ workers and almost 73% of the public sector overall.
In spite of 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 to jobs that pay better,” Melissa said. “We are tired of having to cover the gaps where we’re unable to recruit new staff as the pay rates are uncompetitive.”
Women must be paid comparable wages to men, Melissa said, adding: “No longer will we accept your speeches about supporting women in the workplace”.
As the firefighter noted, most government workers are not producing revenue. But they do make the state’s services function: health, education, community services, public transport and more.
Our work makes day-to-day functioning possible, and across the country, government workers are demanding recognition of this vital role.
At long last the need for a return to industry-wide bargaining is being raised at the Jobs and Skills Summit.
Workers are challenging the myth that raising wages causes inflation.
Green Left stands with workers fighting for better wages and conditions, for better staffing and resourcing, for a transfer of profits from the pockets of a few to the many.
If you have things going on at your workplace, write it up and send it through to email@example.com. Leave a hard copy in your lunch-room, share our articles on social media with your workmates and, importantly, become a Green Left supporter.
[Janet Parker is member of the Civil Service Association.]