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We need to rebuild our social foundations

  • 15 June 2021
Imagine a house where most of the foundations are falling apart. Imagine if the owner, instead of rebuilding and restoring the damaged foundations, decided to boost the one or two piers that were exceptionally robust while leaving the others to crumble.

That’s what our society is like right now.

The damage to the foundations is not accidental. Neither is it a matter of wear and tear. Wages haven’t collapsed by themselves. Wage suppression has been a deliberate strategy. As has the suppression of working-age benefits such as JobSeeker. But while these pillars of wages and benefits collapse, the pillars of profits have been strengthened.

Our economy is 1.1 per cent larger than a year ago. Yet, as the situation in Victoria reminded us, none of us are safe unless all of us are safe. And we cannot be safe while work remains increasingly insecure, while social security payments are inadequate and while our public infrastructure is found wanting.

Wages will continue to be driven down while draconian restrictions are placed on workers' rights to organise, advocate, collective bargain, and withdraw their labour. Wages will continue to be driven down when the minimum wage is minimised, when public sector wages are frozen, when employers are given the green light to casualise positions that should be permanent, bypassing both penalty rates and leave entitlements.

But it gets worse. The earth beneath the pillars has been shifted. The very nature and definition of work has changed so much, with the growth of sham contracting, gig work, zero hours contracts and other forms of structured precarity, that insecure work has become the new normal.

Those who want to see the incomes of workers decline in real terms also want to see corporate taxes (for those that pay them!) cut and social infrastructure either dismantled or expropriated and re-purposed as a means of profit while masquerading as a means of support. The commercially operated cashless welfare card is an example of this, at an administrative cost of $10,000 per person per year, and serving the purpose not of supporting people but of demeaning and disempowering them. The suppression of wages must be viewed in tandem with suppression of statutory incomes and with the punitive and paternalistic treatment of people who are not in paid work, including people engaged in the unpaid work of caring.

'We need to begin a new trajectory of sharing, rather than allowing the hoarding of, economic power.'

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