Australians: lazy and overpaid? I think not

The bakery—good business but hard work. Picture ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2014

All stocked for a busy day at the bakery—good business but hard work. Picture ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2014

Everyone I know is working harder, in every industry—and I know a lot of people. Let me tell you about the manager of a bakery/lunch bar from which I buy a sandwich and a coffee three days a week. She commented to me on Tuesday that I had an early start that day, when I uncharacteristically bought a chai latte at 8.30am.

I said, “But you had a much earlier start.”

“Yes,” she said. “I start at 7am every day.”

“And what time do you finish?” I asked.

“7pm,” she said.

Turns out she works 7am-7pm from Monday to Friday, but she also starts at 7am on Saturdays and Sundays.

“And what time do you finish on weekends?’

“Oh, finish early – 5.30pm,” she said.

So she works 81 hours a week, and there’s travel time to and from work on top of that. I thought I was doing it hard at 65-70 hours, much of which I can do from the comfort of my own home.

“It’s a good business though, isn’t it?” I said. There are loads of customers at all hours at the bakery, because the food is ultra-fresh and tasty, the service fast and always with a smile.

“Yes, but we just keep afloat,” she said, adding that she should earn more money than she does.

Ironically—or perhaps just coincidentally—this conversation happened on Budget Day.

As I said, every Australian worker I know, including me, is toiling harder than ever before, many of them for less pay than they received previously. So I took it as a personal insult when Dr Sharman Stone, a Member of Parliament (Murray) in the current federal government, inferred on Monday on the ABC TV panel show Q and A, that Australian workers were lazy and overpaid.

Dr Stone did this by claiming that Australia had one of the lowest productivity rates of any workers in “developed” nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and in the next breath noting that Australians had one of the highest minimum wage rates in the world (she said that like it’s a bad thing).

Dr Stone, a former Minister for Workplace Participation (2006-7),  has a PhD in economics and business, but it seems here that she’s letting her politics get in the way of her education; she’s manipulating statistics to frame her agenda.

This is what she said, from the transcript to the show on the ABC website: “Australia has some of the lowest productivity per worker in the developed world and it has been going down over the last 10 years. We have about the highest, I have to say, minimum wage as well in the developed world…

“If we have a very high minimum wage and we have very low productivity, when we have a highly regulated work force, so there’s very little flexibility…” (

The Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, this year criticised the ABC for not supporting Australia. So how is it that one of the most long-standing MPs in his party felt it was OK on national television to put down every Australian worker?

For a start, her use of OECD productivity figures ( is misleading. Our productivity as estimated by the OECD is above that of Japan, New Zealand, the UK, Canada, Finland, Italy and Spain, amongst others. But more importantly, her assertion that Australians are not pulling their weight is offensive.

If you read the OECD statistics, you realise they are not suitable for application to a judgement on whether individuals or groups work hard or not and whether they are thus overpaid. To use them as such is a logical fallacy. They are a macro-type guide for big business, exporters and so on. The OECD itself has a disclaimer on its website, saying that the statistics as “[e]stimates of productivity levels are more uncertain than estimates of productivity growth; therefore, some caution may be warranted when interpreting those measures.”

Meanwhile, Dr Stone seems to think that cutting people’s wages will result in them working harder. So, my message to Dr Stone is this: look around you and see that people are already working hard, many for so little that they can barely afford to put a roof over their heads, such are our exorbitant housing prices in Australia.

And, crucially, this: You don’t get more productivity by paying people less, including cutting the minimum wage, though in the (very) short-term, some statistics might make it appear so. In the medium and long term, you get better productivity by paying people fairly, by providing good working conditions, job security and ongoing training.

That would seem obvious but, apparently, it’s not.

22 thoughts on “Australians: lazy and overpaid? I think not

  1. Caron – Not being Australian, I don’t feel comfortable commenting on the politics. But I do feel comfortable saying this. Every Australian I know (and I’m privileged to know several) works very hard. And by ‘work hard,’ I don’t just mean show up. They work hard. They work plenty of hours and they make an effort. And I don’t know any of ’em who lives in an hugely expensive home in an ultra-posh suburb. Lazy? Um-no. Overpaid? Don’t think so. Sorry if I stuck my nose in where it doesn’t belong, but I really think you’re right.

  2. You are dead right Caron. Everyone I know that has been retrenched and reinvented themselves are getting far less pay and working harder.

    • Yes, that’s right. I know lots of ex-journos, for example, that have been cut back to gradings they haven’t had to work on for 30 years. Wisdom, experience, and quality don’t seem to be valued in workplaces any more.

  3. I know it was 40 years ago, but when I lived in the UK for three years employers actively sought out Aussies because of their no-nonsense attitude and willingness to work hard. I don’t think anything has changed, certainly not among the people with whom I come into contact. A young man I know well manages teams of people for one of the big four banks in the city. His working day averages at least 12 hours and, even then, he is expected to do extra on weekends and even when on holiday – for no boost to his base pay. Employees now know that if they do not go beyond the call they will be dispensed with and a replacement brought in who will. It is a hard world and getting harder.

    • Yes, I agree. I recently took my students on a field trip to an advertising agency, and the co-creative director there, aged 32, said he worked 14-16-hour days, including after dinner at home. He started before 6am every day. His wife was in a demanding job also, and they had a young baby. I think that was an eye-opener for students wanting to get into communications fields.

  4. Pingback: Australians: lazy and overpaid? I think not | The Storyteller Project

  5. Wonder how many hours she works and how much she earns. I doubt she works from 7 – 7 and barely earns enough to stay afloat.

  6. I agree with you on all counts. It’s the same in the States — longer hours, less pay, everyone has more work. Friends of mine have been put into cubicles with every other worker around them, no privacy, noise, no place even for coats and files. And they’re all given more work and no raises, which in essence is a pay cut. And prices go up, but if wages don’t, that’s a pay cut, too, though indirectly.
    I see guys working in a restaurant/take-out place nearby, and their wages are so low and they work very long hours.
    And just for information, as the recovery was ending for some, the jobs that came back were mostly low-wage jobs. A young man I know has two Masters degrees in Science, and he was working in a restaurant — and very hard, too. He quit, as he was do despondent about not being able to find a job in his field.
    And people over here, too, work very hard. Productivity is high, and with computerized time schemes, people have to perform at a very high level (speed) or they’re fired or demoted. And many people who earn minimum wage or so have two jobs; many are women with children to feed.
    There is a lot to say.
    I sympathize with what you say about those politicians. We have them here. Their attitudes are very condescending and insulting to women and other working people. They tell people who earn $7.25 an hour and work very hard that they “just don’t know how to budget”! (One man I saw on TV works two jobs at McDonald’s, has two sons and could not afford them graduation presents.)
    So we have our share of inhuman politicians here, too. You know you’re right and everyone
    who really works for a living would agree with you in a minute.

    • Kathy, thank you so much for writing such a fulsome comment. It really says so much about the current conditions for workers everywhere. I know the minimum wage in the US is much lower than it is in Australia, and I don’t know how people manage at all on $7.25 an hour. As you say, they have to have two jobs. It makes a nonsense of the whole “work-life balance” ideas: they are only for people with the luxury of a full-time permanent position that pays reasonably well. For everyone else, it is hand to mouth, just trying to get by. An Australian politician on TV this week said that no young person with a degree should have a problem getting a job. They are so out of touch – or maybe they really just don’t care. In Australia, they are raising the retirement age to 70: but even people of 50 have trouble getting jobs because of ageism.

  7. Absolutely agree again. What you say is here, too. The Social Security retirement age is now 67, but many people who retire still have to work, but the jobs are hard to find — and often they’re at low pay.
    An economic think tank, Economic Policy Institute, keeps track of the “missing workforce,” those who
    have dropped out and given up looking for work. It’s up to 6.22 million. (They’re not even counted in the “unemployed” figures. Ten years ago, purportedly, everyone worked or was looking for work, and the hidden unemployment was nil.
    Jobs that have popped up after the “recovery” are in retail, hotel, restaurant industries mainly, which
    pay little.
    And I just read an article in the New York Times about flexible time and working at home. The number
    of people who can do that is decreasing, and it’s only professionals who can do it. This doesn’t help
    working parents who often need flexible time or working at home, nor those with low wages who
    have no options to do it at all.

    • Yes, I’m interested in this “missing workforce” that governments never talk about. A lot of people in Australia have also given up looking for work. Then there are sessional workers who are under-employed or unemployed for a large chunk of the year. This includes a large proportion of the country’s tertiary educators—The percentage of university academic staff that is employed on a short-term contract or casual basis is 60% and rising: no holidays, no sick leave, no security. And what is it with employers not allowing employees to work from home if they can? You still have to do the work: who cares if you can watch a child or put on the washing at the same time? Our roads are clogged, our public transport is severely overcrowded, every parking spot is taken; working from home would seem to be the obvious solution.

  8. Again agree. So much needs doing in the States with the whole infrastructure. Bridges have collapsed. Highways are deteriorating. Public schools need work. Hospitals are closing. People could be put to work to do all this, but Congress will not set up a jobs program or allocate funds for projects that would create jobs. It is so frustrating. (The House refused to extend unemployment benefits to the jobless, the first time ever at a time of such high unemployment.)
    The Economic Policy Institute says there are 6.22 million “missing” workers, those who’ve dropped out of the job market. But there are also millions who are working low-wage jobs, and many involuntarily working part-time. Also, millions are working temporary jobs, thus, no paid sick days, health care, no benefits.
    Agricultural workers are not covered by minimum-wage laws. And home health aides until very recently weren’t covered by rules about overtime pay and get no benefits. Just read that the industry that employes them just asked for a two-year delay in implementing overtime pay for them.
    And the working conditions at Amazon’s and Walmarts and fast food eateries are awful.
    Yikes! I can’t think about it too much.
    What is good to me is to see the fast food workers outside protesting and many supporters joining them.
    This week 129 people got arrested outside a McDonald’s shareholders’ meeting in Illinois, calling for higher wages, etc. This gives me hope.

    • Indeed, it is great that people are protesting. I really think so-called western societies have gone backwards in the last decade—perhaps two. This is in all matters: feminism, workers’ rights, quality and freedom of the media. The only way to bring about change is to protest, to be active, to say “no”. It’s very hard for people to do that though, when they’re so afraid of losing what little employment they have. Last year, I became a union delegate representing the casuals (“sessionals” as they are known) at my university. I hope I can make some small difference.

  9. Bravo to you for becoming a union delegate.
    And, yes, protests are crucial. Another area backsliding here is Civil Rights, including the imposing of strict voting rights restrictions. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960s helped to win the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, which opened up voting to people who had faced limitations on voting. Also, affirmative action in colleges is being overturned, and now many fewer students from communities of color are in college. And scholarships are limited. College tuition is prohibitive for so many now. And student debt is higher than credit card debt. This forces many students to drop out and work to repay loans. And public schools are being resegregated.
    Lots of backsliding.
    Well, protest movements made a difference in the 1960s and 1970s and are now beginning to organize again.

    • So many problems, mostly caused by greed: the few at the top wanting to keep control of the power and money, and really not caring about what happens to everyone else. It’s a terrible shame and bad for the country when opportunities are limited for any reason—race, wealth, gender, colour, creed. Student debt is a worry, too. The latest budget in Australia has gone the way of New Zealand, and now student loans will attract interest, whereas they haven’t until now. I know a New Zealander on a moderate income who, in her 30s, had to sell her apartment because the tax office was demanding she pay back her loan and it had accrued so much interest, it was double what it had been when she left university.

  10. And your friend’s story is common. Over here, an enormous number of students and graduates have moved back into their parents’ homes because they can’t find jobs or jobs with decent pay.
    And as is said the top 1% are getting richer and the rest of the population is treading water or losing ground. Oxfam did a study that said that 88 people in the world own as much wealth as the total of 3 1/2 billion, half of the world’s population, those in the bottom half economically.
    And the U.S. shares less of its wealth with its population in terms of wages and social benefits than many other wealthier countries. A recent study was written about in the New York Times. The fight over health insurance here is incredible. Half of the states’ governments won’t expand Medicaid, which the federal government would pay 90% of, so millions of poor people are without medical care.
    Well, everyone over here and elsewhere has to do and say something about all this. That’s the only
    way to change things.

    • Yes, I agree. But it amazes me how many people have been bamboozled into thinking they are “bosses”, “power couples” (current buzz-word), or that if they work for nothing or next-to-nothing (while living with parents) and accept shoddy work conditions, they will somehow be rewarded. I saw on a British TV show about young people recently that the average age for people buying their first house there is 38. I think it’s similar here in Australia. In New Zealand, where I come from originally, it’s even worse. The house prices in Auckland are very similar to those in Melbourne, yet wages are at least 30% less in NZ.

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