Can Australians Raise a Family on Minimum Wage?

Bishops Speak Up as Nation Considers Salaries for Poor

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ALEXANDRIA, Australia, MAY 6, 2009 ( The Australian bishops are calling for a just minimum wage for working families, particularly in the midst of the current global economic crisis.

This appeal was made in a pastoral letter for the May 1 feast of St. Joseph the Worker, released Friday by the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, an agency founded by and responsible to the bishops’ conference.

The letter, signed by the council’s chairman, Bishop Christopher Saunders of Broome, stated, “At a time when our political leaders are considering how the community will bear the costs of the crisis, it must be remembered that wage justice for the most vulnerable is more important than ever.”

It noted that the country is making its annual minimum wage review “just as the crisis is having profound effects and unemployment is on the rise.”

The council pointed to those “on the fringes of the labor market,” the workers “who rely on low wages topped up with government payments,” who “have little or no bargaining power and are susceptible to unemployment.”

It added, “They are the most vulnerable among those our politicians call ‘battlers’ or ‘working families.'”

The council called for a “decent minimum wage safety net” as “a most important factor in providing security for working families and alleviating the impact of what our prime minister has said will be the worst economic downturn in 75 years.”

This “safety net must meet basic needs of workers and their families relative to general living standards in the community” and “should keep pace with price increases and keep workers and their families out of poverty,” the letter stated.

It added that “these expectations are not being met.”

Inadequate calculations

For years, it reported, the Australian Catholic Council for Employment Relations has “argued that the federal minimum wage and other low paid classifications are inadequate to meet the needs of individuals and their families.”

The standard calculated costs of living are outdated and underestimated, the council explained, and the “skyrocketing costs of housing have not been properly taken into account.”

It noted that the “minimum wage safety net is failing” low income families, who do not receive enough to “keep their children fed, clothed, housed and educated, let alone meet the costs of childcare or emergency situations like unforeseen health problems.”

The council affirmed, “The Church has long maintained that a wage should meet the needs not only of the worker but also the worker’s family, and that the minimum wage, including benefits, should meet these needs without requiring the other parent to take up employment if this is not the parents’ choice.”

It pointed out that the minimum wage policy should not be based on the needs of a single person without dependants, but should take into account “the family responsibilities of workers.”

In the midst of the economic crisis, the council acknowledged, while discussing fair wages, arguments will be made that “minimum wages should be frozen or even reduced to ease cost pressures on employers and slow the rate of job loss.”

It continued: “Effectively, such arguments suggest those who rely on safety net wages should carry the costs of job protection and the government’s fiscal stimulus package. But we know that these workers have little or no discretionary income and a limited capacity to bear this cost.”

“Pope John Paul II observed how poverty most often results from the violation of the dignity of work, either through unemployment or the denial of a just wage,” the letter affirmed.

It asserted: “Australia needs a minimum wage that ensures families are protected from poverty and have the ability to nurture and care adequately for each family member.

“The fundamental rights of families to create a home, to welcome the sacred gift of life and raise a family require the guarantee of a decent family wage.”

The council called on the federal government to “bear in mind those who have struggled to survive on low wages and income support.”

It added: “This financial crisis was not of their making. They should not be deprived of the wage increases they need to meet their basic costs of living.”

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