by Professor Marilyn Lake

Rarely does a day pass without newspaper reports of rampant economic exploitation and underpayment of workers by employers.  Employment law principal at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, Giri Sivaraman attributed the spike in wage theft to a number of factors including the decline in union power and membership, the difficulty of legal redress and the prevalence of ‘temporary migrant workers – who are less likely to know their rights and pursue legal action if they are underpaid – [and who] make up a large and growing share of Australia’s workforce’.  When they come into this country, Mr Sivaraman said, ‘they’re told not to bring in contraband, plants or wood from overseas, but they’re not told about what [their] workplace rights might be’.

Not only should migrant workers be informed of basic workplace rights and industrial law on their arrival, it seems to me that our much-discussed citizenship tests should also incorporate questions about workplace rights – award wages and conditions – and the long and defining history of these rights and laws in Australia. Questions might include: ‘When was the 8-hour day won in Victoria?’, ’Which government introduced the first legal minimum wage in the world?’  ‘What defined a living wage?’ and ‘Who represented workers on arbitration courts and wages boards?’ And even more basic: what were the ideals that inspired the Australian pioneers of minimum wages?

Progressive New World Book CoverIn my new book, Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform, I set out the ways in which advanced labour legislation made Australasia a beacon to progressive reformers around the world, who visited in large numbers at the end of the 19th and early years of the 20th century to see these laws in operation for themselves. Visitors form the US included single taxer Henry George, social commentator Frank Parsons, Californian investigator Harris Weinstock , Stanford professor Henry Starr Jordan, Wisconsin professor Richard Eley, Boston feminists Maud Wood Park and Mabel Willard, ‘ardent suffragist of San Antonio’ Marin B Fenwick, and WCTU leader Jessie Ackerman.

Another investigator was Professor M B Hammond from the Economics and Sociology department at Ohio State University, who took twelve months’ sabbatical leave to research new developments in labour law in Australia and New Zealand in 1911. There was little point in going to Britain, he observed, because experience there with minimum wages had been ‘too brief and too limited’ to be of any interest. Hammond did a huge amount of research and was impressed by what he found, noting, especially, the path-breaking nature of HB Higgins’ jurisprudence on the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. Hammond lauded Higgins as a world pioneer of what he called ‘social democracy’: ‘He has certainly expressed, at greater length and with greater clearness than has anyone else, the ideals which have animated the Australian people and the Australian lawmakers in placing on the statute books the body of social legislation which has drawn the eyes of all the world to Australasia, and which marks the most notable experiment yet made in social democracy’.

What were those ideals? Hammond emphasized the novelty of the humanist values that underpinned Higgins’ judgments and quoted his reflection that ‘a growing sense of the value of human life seems to be at the back of all these methods of regulating labor, a growing conviction that human life is too valuable to be the shuttlecock in the game of money-making and competition’. Workers were human beings with human rights and needs.

Harvester Works from National Museum of AustraliaIn Progressive New World I suggest that the Victorian world-first legal (compulsory) minimum wage of 1896 (and associated wages boards) and Higgins’ subsequent definition of the minimum wage as a ‘living wage’ in the Harvester judgment handed down to the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration in 1907 are best understood with reference to a set of larger histories: first, the global labour market of the late 19th century that followed the abolition of British and US slavery with the introduction of indentured, often called ‘coolie’, labour throughout the world; second, the new history of human rights and the conceptualization of workers as not slaves, nor commodities, nor mere costs of production, but as human beings with human needs and human rights; and third, the advent of citizenship as a status that not only enshrined equal political rights – the right to vote –  but the economic and social rights envisaged in the payment of a living wage and Liberal leader Alfred Deakin’s demand for an ‘equality of wage for equality of work’.

Alice Henry
Alice Henry

Alice Henry, the Australian feminist reformer working in the US made the case for a living wage and praised its revolutionary implications in Life and Labor, the journal of the National Women’s Trade Union League she edited in Chicago. The living wage was different, she said, than anything that had gone before. It was much more than the slave-owner’s idea of a minimum wage – a subsistence wage. It meant ‘food wholesome and appetizing, clothes comfortable and graceful, and education broad and adequate, not forgetting the primal need for recreation’. Indeed a living wage was ‘more than humanity had ever asked for before….It means the right at last for all to be human, to be their best selves, to develop who knows what capacities, what unguessed-of powers’.

Surely it is time, now, with wage theft rampant, for our political leaders to remind Australians that minimum and award wages were rendered compulsory by law in this country more than 120 years ago in world-historic legislation that wrote a new chapter in the history of human rights and defined exploiting employers as slave-driving criminals. The compulsory minimum wage underpinned the ideal of the equality of citizenship and workers’ rights as human rights. Some founding traditions are surely worthy of national enforcement.


Professor Marilyn Lake, AO, FAHA, FASSA is an Australian historian. Her research interests include Australian history; nation and nationalism; gender, war and citizenship; femininity and masculinity; history of feminism; race, gender and imperialism; global and trans-national history. Prof. Lake is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Science in Australia.