Illustration: Matt Golding.
Illustration: Matt Golding.

The recent call by the Institute of Public Affairs for the
abolition of Australia’s minimum wage has been framed in terms of the
dignity of work and the flexibility of workers (The Age, April
7). But can work truly have dignity if workers are reduced to penury?
If labour is thus degraded so are the labourers who perform it. It was
precisely to secure recognition of the dignity of workers as human
beings – and their needs and rights as human beings – that Victoria
introduced the first legal minimum wage in the world in 1896. In 1907,
as President of the Arbitration Court, H.B. Higgins defined the minimum
as a living wage, sufficient to meet the variety of needs of a person
living in a civilised community.

It was one of Australia’s great democratic innovations and
recognised as such around the world. Visitors came from Britain, China,
France, Germany and the United States to see the new laws regarding
wage-fixing machinery in operation. A minimum wage was gradually adopted
by most other countries and inscribed as an international convention by
the International Labour Organisation in 1928. On all sides the advent
of the minimum wage was hailed as a crucial marker of modern
civilisation. Why?


The idea of a minimum wage recognised workers as human beings
and equal citizens, rather than treating them as commodities or mere
units in the cost of production. It came at the end of a century in
which workers had been slaves, or treated as slaves, coerced into
contracts that denied their freedom, forced into unpaid or underpaid
labour. When Alfred Deakin, a member of the Victorian Legislative
Assembly in 1896 and soon to become one of Australia’s great Liberal
prime ministers, spoke in support of the introduction of a minimum wage,
he said it was not only a matter of social justice, but essential to
our equal dignity and mutual respect as Australian citizens.

We were not joined simply by economic transactions.
Citizenship entailed a duty of care and relations of reciprocity and
mutual obligation. It would demean us all, said Deakin, if those who
made our food and clothing or tended to our comforts and wellbeing were
treated as inferior beings, unworthy of our care. The leading feminist
journalist, Alice Henry, made a similar observation when she returned
from working for the National Women’s Trade Union League in Chicago in
1924. The United States had yet to introduce a national minimum wage.
That would come with President Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1938.

Travelling back to Australia, Henry felt proud, as she wrote
to an American friend, that the Australian seamen who manned her ship
and those who attended to her comfort were not treated as menials, but
enjoyed decent working conditions and were paid good wages. They were
her fellow citizens and she would have been ashamed if their work had
not been remunerated at a level that allowed them to live with dignity.
"I do feel a deep sense of self-respect," she wrote, "in knowing that
those who are contributing to my welfare and my comfort are just as well
off as I am."

Today, 90 years later, thousands of workers who contribute to
the welfare and comfort of others, including many who work in
hospitals, childcare centres and aged care homes, traditionally the work
of women, are demeaned by being paid a pittance. Research into the
situation of Victorian childcare workers has found that their very low
wages, that recognise neither the importance of the work they perform,
or the skill and experience of the workers, feel demoralised and
humiliated, akin to social outcasts. Rather than raise their wages and
provide the government support that would make childcare more
affordable, some commentators have suggested we should import childcare
workers and pay them $200 a week. Surely Australian self-respect demands
that we support campaigns for decent wages and working conditions, here
and elsewhere, not collaborate in the exploitation of contract labour,
forcing workers into destitution.

Australia led the way in defining the minimum wage as a
living wage sufficient to enable workers to live in comfort in a
civilised community. Its leading architect, H.B. Higgins, was, like his
fellow Liberal Alfred Deakin, a member of the Victorian Parliament in
1896 that saw the introduction of this world-historic reform, hailed
internationally as the most notable experiment yet made in social
democracy. When Higgins visited the United States in 1914, he was
besieged by reformers, keen to seek his advice. The question of the
minimum wage was in the air, as one activist noted, and everyone looked
to the Australian example.

The question of the minimum wage is in the air again. It is
to be hoped that those keen to destroy it recognise that it is more than
a safety net below which wages cannot fall. It is a symbol of the
values that Australians once held dear and our mutual regard as
citizens. Its history reminds us that it was a proud Liberal
achievement, one that present-day Liberals should also be proud to
acknowledge and uphold. It is an Australian tradition worth preserving.

Marilyn Lake is a professor in history at the University
of Melbourne, researching the international history of Australian