Queensland public servants have had their wages frozen for 18 months as part of the government’s efforts to force them to pay for the looming economic crisis.
The Labor government claims they are short of money and the freeze is necessary to reduce unemployment. “We are committing to job security, while recognising a freeze is needed to help Queenslanders get back to work,” premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told the media in June. This is a lie.
The savings made by the public sector pay freeze is set to amount to $500 million. However, the Queensland government pays over $1 billion in subsidies to fossil fuel companies every year and continues to do so during the pandemic. In recent weeks, the Queensland parliament also passed a $50 million hand out to the gambling industry. When it comes to funding destructive, multi-million-dollar corporations, the government has money to burn.
Nor has the pain been felt equally by all government employees. There has been no wage freeze imposed on Queensland’s politicians, for example, including on the more than $400,000 salary of the premier.
Palaszczuk has also given the police two weeks extra leave and a bonus of $1,250, while nothing comparable has been offered to the hundreds of thousands of other public sector workers subject to the pay freeze. This is during a time when, thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, bloated police budgets are under extra scrutiny. Last year it was revealed that police in Queensland were holding children in the Brisbane watchhouse – a maximum-security adult facility. And despite the outcry, young people continue to be locked up there, at a rate of more than 100 per month. By contrast front-line healthcare workers, hospital orderlies and cleaners, whose work is central to protecting the public and is done at considerable personal risk, have been offered no extra leave or bonus pay.
Worse still, the Labor government has set a precedent with the pay freeze of overriding enterprise agreements when it suits them. Should the Liberals take power in October, they’ll have the road paved for them to further trash wages and conditions.
In response, it has been heartening to see some union action led by Australian Workers Union members in hospitals across the state. These workers haven’t had a pay rise since 2018. Shamefully though, this is the exception rather than the rule.
The United Workers Union, which covers paramedics, school cleaners and teacher-aides, has come out supporting the pay freeze. The Queensland Teachers’ Union leadership nominally opposes the freeze, but has called no industrial action. The commitment of union leaders to defending a Labor government over their own members’ wages and conditions, and refusal to call industrial action, is no strategy to defend our rights.
We need unions prepared to fight government attacks, whether Labor or Liberal. The coming crisis will see governments and bosses prepared to go to great lengths to force workers to pay. The current pay freeze is just the start.