Want a pay rise? You should care about how much Australia’s lowest-paid workers earn

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Nicole Park works full-time at one of the big supermarket chains, but says she can’t afford to buy her groceries there.

“When it comes to feeding my children, I can’t actually afford to shop where I work,” she explains.

“I go to the local fruit shop, the meat shop and buy whatever is cheapest and on sale. I can’t afford to buy the good brand food.”

Currently, 2.2 million Australians are on the minimum wage — which is $19.84 per hour ($753.80 per week).

Like Nicole, many of those Australians have their pay set by awards that rise in line with the minimum wage.

And those awards cover a lot of industries, including frontline healthcare, early childcare, construction, retail and tourism.

The 30-year-old mother of two currently clears $825 per week after tax and is the breadwinner of her family.

Every week she spends $400 on mortgage repayments, $105 on school fees, $125 on before and after-school care, up to $70 on petrol, $50 at the fruit shop and $60 at the butcher shop.

Her husband’s income pays for car registration and insurance. After all of that, the family is left with about $100 each week for incidentals.

“I would love to be able to take my children to Movie World or Sea World for a special day out, but we just can’t,” she says.

“I go without, I put my kids first. I go a very long time between haircuts and colours, I don’t get my nails done. I only buy clothes once a year.”

Meet Sofia, one of the ‘working poor’

Like Nicole, 63 per cent of Australians think the minimum wage should be increased, according to the Australia Talks National Survey 2021.

And 14 per cent of Australians surveyed say the minimum wage should be much higher — including Sofia Floros.

The 58-year-old is employed part-time as a cleaner in Melbourne’s outer suburbs, and her income is set in line with the minimum wage.

She describes herself as one of the “working poor”.

“It’s no good, I am working but it is not enough to live comfortably,” she says.

She is also the main income earner, as her husband can only find casual work.

“Everything has gone up, you can’t afford petrol for the car. It drowns us,” she says.

Sofia’s not wrong.

The cost of basics increased by 61.4 per cent between 2005 and 2020, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

It’s probably unsurprising then that according to Australia Talks, most think the cost of living is a significant problem generally (89 per cent) and more than half (55 per cent) think it is a problem for them personally.

The higher cost of life’s essentials means Sofia and her husband have to cut back on their electricity use.

In a colder state like Victoria, that means not using the heater to warm their house.

“How are we supposed to pay the bills? When I see my bill I think ‘oh no’. We cover ourselves with blankets instead,” she says.

Higher wages needed, key economist says

Jim Stanford, an economist and director at Centre for Future Work, says if the minimum wage could be boosted by about 4 per cent this year, it would encourage other employers to finally give their workers a pay rise.

“Australia has been suffering for almost a decade from the worst wages stagnation since the 1930s. It’s not just the pandemic, these are long-running structural problems,” he explains.

He says the country’s economic recovery from COVID-19 depends on higher wages.

“People on the minimum wage don’t spend on luxuries, many of them don’t have a mortgage and are dealing with escalating rent,” Dr Stanford says.

“Australia is trying to recover from a recession and we need all of the purchasing power we can get, it is the only thing driving the economy forward right now.”

A decision on the minimum wage for the next financial year is due before the end of June.

Unions want a 3.5 per cent increase, but the main industry group says employers are hurting from COVID and can’t afford it, arguing it should be no higher than 1.1 per cent.

Last year the, or 1.75 per cent — the lowest increase in 12 years.

Nicole says people like her simply can’t afford for the minimum wage to stay where it is.

“During the pandemic, they said supermarket workers and cleaners are essential workers, but if I am that, and you said I have to still work, why am I not entitled to be paid more?” she says.

The Australia Talks National Survey asked 60,000 Australians about their lives and what keeps them up at night. Use our interactive tool to see the results and how your answers compare.

Then, tune in at 8:00pm on Monday, June 21 to watch hosts Annabel Crabb and Nazeem Hussain take you through the key findings and explore the survey with some of Australia’s best-loved celebrities.

By business reporter Rhiana Whitson (Original ABC Article)