West Australian public sector workers fight for a living wage
West Australian public sector workers fight for a living wage

Western Australian public sector workers will rally at the state parliament on 17 August to demand that wages keep up with the cost of living. The rally, organised by the Public Sector Alliance of nine trade unions, follows several stop-work rallies held at WA hospitals over the last month, involving thousands of health workers.

Since its election in 2017, the McGowan Labor government has imposed harsh wage restraint on the state’s 150,000 public sector workers. Until last December, wage increases were capped at between 1 and 1.5 percent for most public sector workers. The government then lifted the cap to 2.5 percent, plus an additional 0.25 percent or $1,000 sign-on bonus.

On 31 July, in a move clearly intended to dampen support for the 17 August rally, McGowan announced yet another change to the policy. Wage increases are now capped at 3 percent, with a one-off $2,500 “cost of living payment”.

McGowan’s media statement boasted that a patient care assistant who earns just over $55,000 a year would secure a 7.5 percent wage increase over the first year. What the statement failed to mention is that the same assistant would enter the second year of their enterprise agreement with only a three percent increase in their base salary.

Western Australia has experienced the highest cost of living increase in the country. According to the Bureau of Statistics, Perth’s annual inflation rate is 7.4 per cent, well above the national average.

Despite McGowan’s insistence that “a public sector job is a secure job” and “a good job”, the state’s public sector is reeling from labour shortages, especially in health and education. A booming iron ore industry is contributing to higher rents and property prices, while at the same time luring workers away from public sector employment to better paid jobs.

Rail, Tram and Bus Union secretary Josh Dekuyer told the West on 27 July that around 45 train drivers had quit Transperth over the past twelve months, many seeking more lucrative employment on iron ore freight lines. According to Dekuyer, drivers jokingly refer to the Public Transport Authority as the Pilbara Training Authority.

However, it has been in the health sector that workforce shortages are most dire, especially in rural and regional areas. On 29 July, a patient at Fiona Stanley Hospital was made to wait fourteen hours to secure a bed.

“There was a loud message over the speaker asking for people to leave if they didn’t really need to be there because the average waiting time was about 10 hours”, Anthea Paino told 7 News.

In March, two elderly Perth patients died while waiting for ambulances.

According to St John’s ambulance service, ambulance ramping times reached 6,982 hours in July, the highest on record. Ramping is when paramedics are unable to transfer patients to emergency departments due to staff or bed shortages. While COVID-related staff absences have been a contributing factor, the crisis predates the March 2022 explosion in COVID-19 case numbers. In 2021, ambulance ramping doubled from a year earlier.

The Health Sector Union (HSU), which covers physiotherapists, pharmacists and health administration workers, and the United Workers Union (UWU), which covers enrolled nurses and supporter workers, including kitchen, cleaning and laundry staff, have held stop-work meetings at public hospitals throughout the state demanding better pay and conditions for health workers. 

While workers are feeling the pain, the state’s richest are filling their pockets with profits from the iron ore boom. In May, the Australian Financial Review reported that two mining magnates—Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest—had both lifted their personal net wealth to more than $30 billion. The iron ore boom has also put money in government coffers. The May budget revised the state’s surplus up to $5.7 billion.

Since June last year, the Public Sector Alliance has been campaigning to overturn the state’s below-inflation wages policy. However, the unions involved have been far from united in their demands. The UWU and HSU have each adopted the slogan “Five to survive”, calling for a 5 percent wage increase.

In June, the State School Teachers Union, also a member of the Public Sector Alliance, accepted the government’s below-inflation 2.5 percent offer, much to the chagrin of many of its members and unionists across the rest of the public sector.

The Community and Public Sector Union/ Civil Service Association is calling for a pay increase of whichever is higher: 4 percent per year, or Perth CPI plus 0.75 percent in the first year and CPI plus 0.5 percent in subsequent years. While it has firmly rejected the government’s current pay offer, other unions within the alliance have been more equivocal.

In August, the UWU told its members that “bargaining committees across health and education will meet in the next week and consider the government’s offer”. The HSU and Unions WA have issued similar statements.

Only the maritime union, which covers WA Port Authority workers, is calling for strike action on 17 August. While the Rail, Tram and Bus Union was reported by the West on 27 July to be surveying its members to gauge interest in a 17 August walk-off, it has made no further announcements.

Notably absent from the Public Sector Alliance is the Australian Nursing Federation. In June, after Secretary Mark Olsen announced his imminent retirement, registered nurse Sam Fenn declared her intention to nominate for the position in forthcoming union elections.

“I want to see a return to focusing on the core business of a union which is improved industrial relations, and workplace representation, rosters, conditions, and wages for all members”, she told local media.

In New South Wales, nurses have demonstrated what’s possible, voting branch by branch to reaffirm their commitment to fighting for a pay rise of at least 7 percent, in defiance of union officials. The NSW Liberal government’s wage policy is little different from McGowan’s. Teachers, nurses and railway workers in that state have been at the forefront of industrial action.

The 17 August public sector union rally is an important step to bringing workers together to show our rejection of McGowan’s wage austerity. We need to make sure this is just the beginning.

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