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…” (http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s3985872.htm)

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 ( http://stats.oecd.org/index.aspx?queryid=32480#) 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.

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