Australian wages in real terms are essentially no different from where they were in 2013

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Rohan Thomson/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Rohan Thomson/AFP/Getty Images

The latest wage price index figures confirm that when Australians go to the polls this Saturday, their real wages will be lower than at the last federal election. Not only that, but so bad has been the fall that real wages are now essentially no different from what they were when Tony Abbott took office in 2013.

In the latest minutes of the Reserve Bank board, the bank noted it decided not to wait for this latest wage data because while the board “agreed that this information would be helpful … the recent evidence on wages growth from the Bank’s liaison and business surveys was clear”.

I suspect they were talking to people other than those earning a wage, because the latest wage price index showed there was no increase in the annual growth of wages of 2.4%:

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Private sector wages have now been growing annually at 2.4% for the past three quarters. After the recovery from the abnormal slow growth that occurred during the lockdowns of the pandemic, growth has hit a ceiling it is struggling to break.

Related: Five housing policies that wouldn’t drive up prices in Australia | Greg Jericho

Quarterly growth in March saw no increase from the growth in the last three months of 2021. Far from a big surge in wages driving up inflation, the 0.7% quarterly increase is some 1.4 percentage points below the 2.1% quarterly growth of the consumer price index in the March quarter:

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It really shows how big of a lie the spin is that we need to be careful wages don’t start forcing up prices.

But it is actually worse when you dig into the figures.

The major issue of inflation since the pandemic is that the price of non-discretionary items – ie those things you can’t avoid paying, like food, utilities, petrol, insurance – has risen faster than for discretionary items.

In the past year the prices of non-discretionary items rose 6.6%:

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Given lower-paid workers spend more of their income on non-discretionary items than the average household, this means those workers have seen a truly massive drop in their standard of living.

And the low rate of jobseeker is a factor here.

As Kristin O’Connell, the spokesperson for the Anti-Poverty Centre has noted, fear of having to go back onto jobseeker is a strong disincentive to bargain for higher wages.

Related: Real incomes shrink as wages growth of 0.7% in March quarter falls behind inflation

She argues that “Jobseeker payments are so unliveable that people have little power to push for higher wages even if they’re earning poverty wages from their paid work”.

And for all workers, the fall in real wages is historically large.

The 2.6% fall over the past 12 months is so great that it means real wages are now 2.2% below what they were at the 2019 election, 1.5% below what they were at the 2016 election and essentially the same as they were in September 2013:

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It really does put all talk about a strong recovery from the pandemic into context. Yes, GDP has recovered, and yes unemployment has fallen, but the ability of workers to buy things with their wages has fallen.

Talking about GDP growth is often a bit pointless. You can’t eat GDP, but right now you can’t buy more with your wages than you could three, six or nine years ago.

  • Greg Jericho is a Guardian columnist and policy director at the Centre for Future Work

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