Delay pay rise, employer groups say

Many pharmacies did a “roaring trade” during the COVID-19 pandemic, says one union in opposing a potential wage freeze for award-reliant workers, including pharmacy assistants

The Fair Work Commission is currently considering whether more than two million workers in sectors impacted by COVID-19 – including those employed under the retail industry award – should have to wait again for a pay increase.

Unions, however, are lobbying for a 3.5% pay increase for all minimum wage and award-reliant workers, from July 1.

Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus told News Corp media this week that the proposed wage freeze was a “terrible, short-sighted view” by industry employer groups, which would mean an effective pay cut for relevant workers.

She said that increasing the pay of these workers would help feed cash back into the economy, as lower-paid employees tended to spend all their pay on “essentials” rather than adding it to savings.

Employer groups told The Australian that they hope for an award increase to be delayed this year for workers in impacted sectors.

But the Guild doesn’t support the wage freeze, a spokesperson said.

Unions representing pharmacy assistants criticised the proposed wage freeze.

“Our members have been on the frontline over the past year,” said Josh Cullinan, secretary of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union.

“Members working as pharmacy assistants are paid minimum wages across Australia. They have also faced recent cuts to penalty rates.

“Delays in increases to minimum wages – currently at just $21.78 per hour for a worker over 21 years of age – are simply unacceptable.

“Many pharmacies have done a roaring trade and made substantial profit off the back of the healthcare focus.

“A very small number of pharmacies have implemented stand downs in CBDs and on campuses. In such circumstances they have benefited from Job Keeper and cuts to worker wages in any event.

“There is simply no basis whatsoever for any delay in minimum wage increases to be inflicted upon our members. They ought have their wages raised to a living wage – at $25 per hour.”

Gerard Dwyer, National Secretary of the SDA, which represents retail, fast food, warehouse and online retail workers, including pharmacy assistants, said that, “The last thing lower paid workers need now is a pay freeze”.

“As the economy struggles to recover from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, lower paid workers need a pay rise to cover the rising cost of essentials and to boost economic activity,” he said.

“Lower paid workers tend to spend all they earn so the more money they have in their pockets the more economic activity there will be.

“That will add to the bottom line of businesses, many of them the very enterprises for which they work.

“In short, delaying wage increases would act as a drag on the economy.”

A spokesperson for the Pharmacy Guild of Australia said the organisation also opposes delaying the pay increase.

“With respect to the current conditions and recent statements related to wage growth, the Pharmacy Guild has indicated it does not support a wage freeze and that any such decisions must be made by the independent authority, being the Fair Work Commission,” they said.

“The Guild also emphasises and supports the implementation of the Commission’s decisions for its membership.”

But Paul Zahra, CEO of the Australian Retailers Association, said that the group remains concerned about COVID conditions, which continue to impact many retailers.

“There were 1 million people and 370,000 businesses still accessing JobKeeper in its final month, and the impact of the end of this policy remains to be seen,” he told the AJP.

“It’s CBD retailers and smaller businesses that we’re most worried about—they are the hardest hit by the end of JobKeeper and other supports such as leasing protections.

“As we are yet to see economic data following the end of JobKeeper, we would like to see a deferral of the decision.”

A recent analysis of the impact on pharmacies from COVID-19 by Lachlan Ballinger and Morgan Whiting showed positive impacts such as improved medicines adherence, resulting in higher average scripts per patient; and a growth in “other” sales, such as masks, sanitisers and vitamins.

However the analysis also highlighted a severe impact on pharmacies in CBD locations and tourist areas, as well as those located alongside some medical centres.

This article was updated 15.4.21.

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