For The Labourer is Worthy of His Hire

Minimum Rates in the Domestic Housing Industry

Bob Day

The title of this joint paper by Ray Evans and me is 'Minimum Rates in the Domestic Housing Industry' and if we are to adhere exactly to that text this paper will be the shortest paper ever delivered because, quite frankly, there are none.

So, how is it that an industry that employees thousands of people and contributes billions of dollars to the economy can operate without that most basic of award conditions Ä the minimum wage? Are these people who work on house building sites so downtrodden and living in fear that they accept their lot without so much as a murmur? And how does all this happen without the government finding out about it? Or could their lack of outrage be because they are happy with their lot?

How does one attempt to explain that in the incredibly regulated industrial relations climate that permeates Australian life we have an industry that has no minimum wage and no awards and yet at the same time has no industrial disruption, no demarcation disputes and no strikes.

The answer is simple and it is contained in the title of this conference. For management and labour in the housing industry both understand that 'The Labourer is Worthy of His Hire".

Management is represented by the owners and managers of home building firms and labour is represented by independent sub-contractors.

It is these independent sub-contractors who are the backbone of the housing industry. Contract labour accounts for over 90% of on-site activity.

At the last conference of the H R Nicholls Society we heard from the Housing Industry Association's Executive Director, Dr Ron Silberberg, who made this rather pertinent observation "the conditions under which sub-contractors work to earn a living and support a family can be arduous, and their hours long, but few would sacrifice the freedom of being their own boss to become employees".

I'd like now to introduce you to a couple of typical sub-contractors whom I believe embody the independent entrepreneurial spirit that is inherent in the housing industry.

One a man called Cliff Randall. Cliff is a labourer who works exclusively on housing sites. He may erect scaffolding, dig trenches, shift building materials or assist in garden landscaping. Cliff is his own boss and is proud of his independence as a sub-contractor. He works on a contract by contract basis, and may, for example be contracted to shift all the bricks on a site which has limited access. What time he starts, what time he finishes, how long he has for lunch (if he chooses to have any at all) are all up to him.

Cliff knows the value of his labour. He is hard working and reliable and despite the abundance of unskilled labour Cliff last year earned over $50,000.

Our second sub-contractor is Yuri Godlevsky. Yuri is a plasterboard fixer and flusher. What you might call a semi-skilled trade. Plasterboard fixers and flushers normally work in pairs and again are fiercely independent in their sub-contract status. In the past the flushers would be constantly shifting low level building planks around a house to enable them to flush the cornices and ceilings.

Enter the aluminium stilt. Devised by a plasterboard flusher the job now takes less time and as a result the flushers earn more. Their ingenuity has gone directly onto their bottom line.

Guys like Cliff and Yuri enjoy working for themselves and dealing directly with the builder. They are not in the slightest bit interested in award protection because like everyone else in the housing industry's labour market today they are quite capable of protecting themselves. They know the value of their labour. Any attempt to impose some form of 'wage regulation' on the housing industry whether it be under the smoke-screen of a better cities programme or a sub-contractors payroll tax scheme would be disastrous.

Housing affordability would go out the window and the industry would probably never recover.

There is a principle here that those in the housing industry have fought vigorously to uphold and to quote from Don Quixote "The man who fights for his ideals is the man who is alive".

Long live the subbie.