For The Labourer is Worthy of His Hire
Minimum Rates in the Domestic Housing Industry
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
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
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
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
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.