The rich getting richer off workers and the poor: Something has to give

Farm workers from National Union of Workers joined the October 2018 Australia Needs A Pay Rise rally in Melbourne. Workers in this sector are amongst the lowest paid. Photo by Debbie Brennan.
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Picture a luxurious hilltop mansion surrounded below by decaying dwellings and people sleeping rough. After 40 years of privatisation and government largesse to the owners of capital, this global economic landscape stretches across Australia. COVID has merely thrown it into sharp relief.

The average annual pay for CEOs in Australia is $9.12 million; for workers it’s $69,000. As CEOs bask in the warmth of their lucrative bonuses — provided by workers’ intensive labour — they contemplate the worrying rise of inflation. Don’t raise wages, they warn adamantly, because it would drive up inflation. But the Australia Institute debunks this corporate line, showing that profits — jacked up by price hikes (think of the soaring costs of energy and food) — account for 60 percent of the recent inflation spike, while any contribution from wages is trivial.

Yet despite a June inflation at 6.14 percent, and expected to go higher, Fair Work Australia granted a lousy 4.6 to 5.2 percent increase to the country’s lowest paid workers. And now, the Albanese Labor government won’t budge on implementing the prior Coalition government’s tax cuts for high earners. Those who are well paid, such as politicians or bank CEOs, will get more than $9,000, but those on low incomes, such as disability and aged care workers, will get nothing! This gift to the well-paid is expected to push inflation higher by stimulating demand on luxury spending. Speaking of tax, one-third of large corporations pay none, according to the Australian Tax Office.

These few snapshots show who’s paying for the crisis. We also watched mega-rich companies, like Harvey Norman, cream off profits from COVID incentives like JobKeeper and were made aware of undisclosed fortunes to private firms to develop vaccines and oversee (very badly) the aged care crisis. Property investment remains a goldmine with capital gains, negative gearing and a swathe of other concessions to speculators and landlords.

Getting welfare support is like squeezing through the eye of a needle, then being punished if you can’t. Stories of recipients losing their housing, health and disability supports are heartbreaking. A teenage cancer patient waiting 27 hours in an overcrowded hospital corridor for treatment is mindblowing. The stress that’s breaking the health and spirit of workers within these systems is contagious.

As the crisis and its source come into sharp focus, so does the solution. Remove all profit from the industries we rely on — from energy, food and vaccine production to aged and healthcare. Nationalise them, and put them under the control of the workers and our communities. We know what’s needed and how to run them. We just need to know our collective power to win this. We can see it in the rising resistance of workers across the U.K. and on Germany’s docks against the escalating cost of living. They are defying anti-strike laws to stage the biggest strike wave in decades. For the exploited, dispossessed and oppressed at the bottom of the hill, it’s a matter of survival.