‘We live pretty simple lives, actually’
LIFE has never been easy for Lisa Erskine, but it just got a lot harder earlier this month.
After her husband Grant suffered a traumatic workplace accident on 3 March, Lisa (pictured) has found herself the couple’s sole breadwinner.
The finances have always been tight for this frugal couple from Dereel, in central Victoria, but with Grant’s return to work some time off – if ever – they are now relying on Lisa’s base rate of $542.70 to get by.
Not that you would ever hear Lisa complaining.
The last thing she wants is to be viewed as a victim, and she doesn’t consider herself to be ‘working poor’, but it is for 1.5 million low paid workers like herself that the ACTU goes into bat each year in the annual wage review conducted by the Fair Work Commission.
The peak union body will today lodge its claim for a $27 a week – or 71 cents an hour – boost to lift the minimum wage to $17.08 an hour.
It is a modest claim designed to prevent the gap widening between the low-paid and average weekly earnings, but predictably, some employers have called for a wage freeze.
‘We want to be the country of the fair go’
ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver said that if action wasn’t taken to increase the minimum wage and turn around the alarming decline in the relative earnings of low paid workers then Australia will have an entrenched working poor as they do in the United States within 20 years.
He said the minimum wage had fallen from 60% of average full-time wages 20 years ago to just 43.3% now, and if the current trend continues will be below 30% by 2035.
“If we want to be the country of the fair go then Australia’s minimum wage must be increased,” Mr Oliver said.
“It is the responsible thing to do and it is the right thing to do – Australians are emphatic, we do not want a US style underclass of working poor in this country.
“We want a country that gives everyone a fair go and gives everyone dignity and a right to a reasonable and decent quality of living. That’s the Australian way.”
The bandage over Grant’s right arm is a visible daily reminder of the accident that has put him off work.
He was lucky to emerge mostly unscathed after rolling his truck not far from home, which was hauling about 30 tonnes of logs from a sawmill in Colac.
WATCH: life on a low wage
While the wound to his arm will eventually heal, the psychological trauma he suffered makes his return to work a long way off.
That has put added pressure on the couple’s finances and extra responsibility on the shoulders of Lisa, who has a permanent part-time job on a spinning machine at the Creswick Woollen Mills, an hour from home.
“Grant and I just recently became empty nesters,” explains Lisa, 48.
“The boys have both grown up and left home, and at this stage of life, we’re finding it quite difficult.
“Working permanent part-time isn’t a very big wage, but it’s a wage we’re going to have to manage on until such time as Grant is well enough and able to go back to work.
“Grant and I don’t own the house – we are buying the house [and] we have a mortgage like every other family. And just recently with the boys leaving home we decided to redecorate the house and did some work, but now with my husband’s accident, everything’s put on hold.
“Grant and I are people who if we can’t afford something, we don’t do it.
“Neither of us own new cars or anything like that. We drive old cars because we don’t have the finances to buy outside of our means. We don’t go away for holidays or things like that.
“So we live pretty simple lives, actually.”
Lisa is matter-of-fact when she describes the tough start she had in her working life.
She was forced to leave school and find full-time work at the age of 14 following the death of her mother. It was a matter of survival.
Her first job was at woollen mills in Castlemaine, near Bendigo, which back then was a large operation with more than 100 workers on the factory floor.
Lisa has also worked as an ambulance transport driver and in domestic and kitchen work in hospitals, but her career came full circle four years ago when she found a job at the Creswick Woollen Mills.
The factory had 20 people when she started, but following a restructure is now down to just eight. The job losses encouraged most of the remaining employees to join the Textile Clothing & Footwear Union of Australia so they could have a voice at work, and 16 months ago, they elected Lisa their shop steward.
The factory produces sheep and alpaca woollen blankets for domestic and export markets, including fire retardant blankets on contract for the rural fire services in Victoria and New South Wales.
Lisa says she works with a great bunch of people, and she loves her job which is challenging and requires considerable skill. And she is obviously good at what she does.
She is paid slightly more than the Award minimum with a base rate of $18.09 an hour as a level three employee, topped up by penalty rates for working on Saturdays.
Lisa works a 30-hour week, Tuesday-Saturday, and spends an hour driving each way from home, mainly along narrow country roads to get to work. The distance travelled to and from work adds up to about 500 km a week.
“Spinning is a physical job, you’re on your feet most of the day and it does involve lifting above your head and it does involve some heavy work,” Lisa says.
“Some days I do think I’m way too old to be doing such a physical job.
“They’re a gorgeous bunch of people here. It’s one of the good things about the job, the people working here and it makes it worthwhile to come to work every day.
“I love this work, and it doesn’t worry me travelling an hour to work.”
Petrol and electricity are big expenses
Lisa says whenever she gets together with friends, the conversation eventually turns to the difficulties of the cost of living. She wonders if Jack and Guy, her two adult sons, will ever be able to afford to buy a house and worries about the direction Australia is going.
“The major expenses here for us is definitely petrol, the finance to travel to work every day is a big expense,” she says.
“Because of the hours that I have to travel to work, if I didn’t get the penalty rates for the weekend, then I just couldn’t afford to travel the distance I do to work.
“Mobile phones are a big expense. Electricity, because we have no natural gas out this way so all the house is powered on electricity so it’s very expensive.
“It’s very important for low income earners to get that pay rise because with the cost of living that goes up all the time and in this era we’re living in things just aren’t affordable.
“So quite often people have to do without.
“Australia is still a good place to live but I can see the times ahead are only going to get more difficult.”
And Lisa has a short and simple message to the employer groups who say she doesn’t deserve a pay rise: “come and live with me for a while, and I can sure show them what reality is.”
Working Life is a forum to share ideas and opinions about work and life, both light-hearted and serious. The opinions presented on Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.