Junk Explained: How The Wage Cap Is Hurting Public Sector Workers

Nurses, transport workers and teachers in the public system are all calling for greater increases to the wage cap.

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Teachers, nurses and bus drivers are just some of the public service employees that have resorted to striking recently to protest the government’s cap of 2.5 percent on pay increases.

You might remember nurses with placards out the front of hospitals, or teachers striking at New South Wales public schools while bus drivers also left entire routes unstaffed to protest their working conditions.

Despite a range of different pressures these sectors are facing, one central issue unites them: the public sector has been hit with a legislated pay cap since the start of the pandemic.

This means that despite worsening inflation hitting Australia, the wages of people employed by the government (like nurses and teachers) cannot grow by more than 2.5 percent.

With 30,000 public service workers from a range of professions expected to participate in strikes tomorrow, New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet announced yesterday that the state government would relax this cap by an extra 0.5 percent, allowing wages to grow by three percent per year.

But despite this increase and a bunch of other changes the NSW government has announced for the sector, unions across the state are not happy.

Medical Staff Call The 0.5 Percent Wage Increase Insulting

Even before Australia’s COVID-19 pandemic, nurses, and midwives in New South Wales had been fighting for better pay and staffing in public hospitals across the state. In response, the sector was given a pay freeze in 2020 while the health sector scrambled to combat COVID.

The New South Wales Nurses and Midwives Association (NSWNMA) has been lobbying the government for a wage increase of 4.75 percent for the sector. For context, the 0.5 percent increase offered yesterday by the Perrottet Government is less than ten percent of that number.

Unsurprisingly, the NSWNMA is far from happy with the arrangement. The union’s Acting Assistant General Secretary Michael Whaite has today called the increase “insulting” while arguing that the rise will do nothing to help workers struck by the rising cost of living.

“The government’s new three percent wages cap is a slap in face and doesn’t even come close to the current inflation rate.”

“The government’s new three percent wages cap is a slap in face and doesn’t even come close to the current inflation rate, which will leave nurses and midwives’ real wages going backwards,” Acting Assistant General Secretary Michael Whaites said in a statement. “We sought a modest pay rise of 4.75 percent, given the wage freeze our members suffered in 2020. They will be insulted by the three percent offer and hints of a further 0.5 per cent next year if they promise to work even harder.”

Dominic Perrottet has announced a total of $4.5 billion in funding for the health sector, including plans to recruit 10,000 extra medical staff over the next four years and a $3,000 ‘appreciation’ package for existing health workers which the premier said would help remunerate “the sacrifices they have made over the last two years”.

NSWNMA Acting General Secretary Shaye Candish says that the payment packages will do little to help medical staff in the long term, and is concerned that the recruitment drive will ignore nurses long-standing calls for legislated patient to staff ratios.

“Given growing cost of living pressures, the government’s one-off $3,000 ‘thank you’ payment will be welcomed by our members, but it won’t help with their cost of living in two months or another two years’ time.” Shaye Candish said.

“We need shift by shift ratios in NSW to deliver safe staffing and improve the working conditions of those who have endured so much while keeping our communities safe.”

Teachers Unions Call The Pay Cap Increase “A Pay Cut”

If you have children or know anybody who does, you might notice some new grey hairs which have grown courtesy of the last two years of remote learning.

While parents were struggling to keep their children engaged in school work at home, teachers fought to adapt their course material for remote learning. Since the pandemic restrictions lifted schools have become a hotspot for the virus, with health concerns and heavy workloads leading to teacher shortages across the public system.

NSW Teachers Federation Chairman Angelo Gavrielatos says that the government’s 0.5 percent increase has added “insult to injury” to exhausted teachers.

“It does nothing to address the teacher shortage crisis facing NSW public schools,” Mr Gavrielatos said in a statement.

“Teachers are already experiencing a real wage cut with inflation running at 5.1 per cent in March 2022. If we don’t pay teachers what they deserve, we won’t attract the teachers we need.”

Mirroring comments from the public sector, the Teachers Federation has labelled the increases to the wages cap as a pay cut that fails to address the rising cost of living.

Public Transport Unions Are In Negotiations For Better Pay

The public transport sector has been negotiating with the state government for a pay increase since the start of the year, with the government famously shutting down the rail network in Sydney in response to the Transport Union’s demands. With negotiations ongoing, transport unions are yet to comment on the wages cap proposed by the NSW State Government.

While unions have been quiet on the issue of the recent increase to the wages cap, public bus drivers took to Sydney’s Martin Place last month to protest the Government’s current safety standards.

The NSW state secretary of the Transport Workers Union Richard Olsen said that the government is “playing politics” with the lives of public transport workers by avoiding extra safety spending.

“Workers in the Bus Industry came out on strike because the NSW Government and the Transport Minister are playing politics with the livelihood and safety of bus drivers and passengers.” Mr Olsen said. “Our membership is angry, they are angry because they do not feel heard. They are angry because the NSW Government has not taken any notice of their issues, but chooses to deny their duty of care.”