Unions NSW 2021 Annual Report

Forward from Unions NSW Secretary Mark Morey

In 2021, Sydney Trades Hall celebrated 150 years of fighting for working people. However, the actual celebration has had to wait like so many other celebrations. Across our state, hundreds of thousands could not do their jobs due to lockdowns, especially in Sydney’s west and south-west.

People who endured 107 days of lockdown were let down by a State Government that was too proud and a federal government that was too slow to act. While working people financially struggled in the first wave of the COVID pandemic, they were at least supported by Jobkeeper and the Coronavirus supplement – two improvements our movement fought tooth and nail for. More recently the NSW union movement had to fight to secure test and isolation payments in NSW. Even after we won this for “areas of concern” we had to continue campaigning to have this support expanded beyond the Sydney basin to regional and rural NSW.

The labour movement had to drag Scott Morrison and then-Premier Gladys Berejiklian kicking and screaming to do the right thing and ensure those unable to go to work were financially supported just as many big businesses were. There is a direct connection between a person’s financial security and their health  choices. It was the union movement who fought to ensure contractors and casual workers were financially supported during the pandemic so when they felt sick they did not have to make a choice between getting a COVID test and isolating or putting food on the table for their families. However, in this latest wave our communities have been cut adrift and left behind by government. An ACOSS study after the 2021 lockdown showed the communities hardest hit had an additional three to seven thousand people who required income support. It is not just the money. It’s the dignity, purpose and structure that comes from being able to  work. In the absence of work there is increased pressure on relationships in addition to the stress and anxiety from not being able to pay rent or mortgage repayments, or providing the basics kids need when they went back to school. It’s not as if these conservative governments are opposed to assistance or corporate  handouts either. They were loose in doling out Jobkeeper to billionaires and CEOs who didn’t need it. More than $13 billion went to companies who had higher turnovers during the pandemic, subsidising bonuses and dividends. The big difference between this crisis and previous ones such as World War 2 is we will emerge from the pandemic more unequal than we entered it.

Popular economic ideas, previously used to explain this kind of inequality, have collapsed over recent years. We have zero immigration yet we have rampant house prices and increasing rents across NSW. Despite the labour and skills shortage, wage growth remains stagnant. A better solution is sustainable jobs which  provide financial security, dignity in safe workplaces. This is the only way to drive sustainable middle class prosperity and it is also the only way to foster social stability.

Last year I travelled to Canberra with Kate, an agricultural worker on a visa, to meet with members of parliament from all sides of politics. Kate loves working on farms and outdoors but one of the jobs she had was picking oranges. She was being paid under a system called piece rates. Piece rates enable employers and  labour hire companies to set pay rates and pay workers per the bucket or punnet of fruit or vegetables picked. Kate was paid $25 per bin of oranges she picked. Some might think that’s a pretty good deal and a skilled worker should be able to make a pretty good wage. Until you find out each bin holds 800 kilograms of  oranges – $25 per 800 kilogram container. In her first week she made a weekly wage of $75. Practices like these and wage theft go on every day unchecked.

We cannot tolerate booming profits and house prices, stagnant wages and growing wealth disparities. We need to support businesses paying good wages and providing safe workplaces – and double down on removing businesses that rely on exploitation. We need to reorient the world of work so middle and working class  families have jobs that they can rely upon, to build a life and form a community. We need decent pay rises for middle and working class families. One of the worst decisions Perrottet made while Treasurer was to cap wage increase in NSW. Last year, workers received a payrise of 0.3%. Perrottet’s wages policy also has a  cooling effect on private sector wages growth. Independent research commissioned by Unions NSW shows that this policy suppresses wages by around 33%. Despite busting a gut to keep us safe through the pandemic, workers can’t bargain for a payrise which keeps pace with inflation. Workers need more than thanks  from politicians. Payrises are good for workers and good for the communities in which workers live and spend their money – ultimately this means it is good for economic growth and job creation. The mission of the union movement has never been more important or urgent. We must make capitalism work for everyone and put power back in the hands of working people.