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One in four workers set to lose $100 billion in retirement savings from wage attacks

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Wage fraud, wage freezes, cuts to penalty rates and companies scrapping enterprise agreements will reduce the retirement savings of millions of workers by $100 billion by the time they retire, a report has found.

The report, the Consequences of Wage Suppression for Australia’s Superannuation System by the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, says the government will pick up more than one third of the cost, equivalent to $37 billion in lost taxes due to lower super contributions and higher age pension payouts.

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It estimates that three million people, or one in four workers, have experienced some form of wage suppression, which will adversely impact their super payout.

The author of the report, Jim Stanford, describes wage suppression as an economic “time bomb”. He says while individual families are grappling with the immediate impact of wage cuts, the long-term impact when they retire is yet to play out.

The report, to be released on Monday, identifies eight wage suppression strategies and models the impact on long-run superannuation contributions and retirement incomes.

It says the aggregate loss of super balances on retirement (if the pattern of wage suppression is maintained)  could exceed $100 billion in real 2017 dollars by the time affected workers retire.

Dr Stanford says if some of the wage suppression damage was repaired, such as by stamping out wage fraud, the estimated overall losses would be lower.

He says the long-term impact of wage suppression strategies should raise issues for super trustees in terms of the companies they invest in.

The report estimates that 3 million people have experienced some form of wage suppression. The report estimates that 3 million people have experienced some form of wage suppression. Photo: AFR

“Fulfilling their responsibility to maximise the post-retirement benefits of fund members would seem to imply that superannuation funds and their directors have a responsibility to oppose aggressive and even illegal wage suppression strategies, using whatever levers and influences are at their disposal,” he says in the report.

The report highlights public sector pay freezes, the cancelling of enterprise agreements by Streets Ice Cream, Griffin Coal, Aurizon and Murdoch University, and wage fraud scandals such at 7-Eleven, pizza giant Domino’s and Caltex.

7-Eleven is a high-profile offender subject to a massive crackdown by the Fair Work Ombudsman. 7-Eleven is a high-profile offender subject to a massive crackdown by the Fair Work Ombudsman. Photo: Paul Jeffers

In cases where employers cancel enterprise agreements and force employees onto the minimum award, the cost per worker is calculated at $270,000 in reduced retirement savings when the worker retires.

“This can only happen when there is a desperate shortage of jobs, they allow an amenable labour market and the approval of regulators to do it,” Dr Stanford says.

If a company has high labour standards and appropriate governance you have a more profitable company

TWU’s Tony Sheldon

In the private sector it notes a rapid decline in private sector EBA coverage, with data from the Commonwealth Department of Employment, which covers most private sector contracts, falling by 479,000 since December 2013. A large share of those jobs will have fallen back onto minimum awards.

It calculates the cost of wage fraud at companies including 7-Eleven, Caltex and Domino’s will reduce the retirement savings of workers by $50,000 by the time they retire. These figures are based on the assumption that 167,000 workers are being paid $14 an hour in cash, which is well below the minimum award wage of more than $20 an hour. There are more than 1 million workers on a working visa in Australia.

The report estimates that the Fair Work Commission’s recent reduction of penalty rates for workers in retail and hospitality will result in more than 500,000 workers receiving $34,000 each less in super by the time they retire.

It says when employers enforce indefinite wage freezes on staff, such as the salary cap imposed by the NSW public sector in 2011, the long-term impact is a $42,000 reduction in retirement savings for each man and $35,000 for each woman. It estimates more than 600,000 people fall into this category and 1.5 million workers fall into the temporary nominal wage freeze category.

The Transport Workers Union, which commissioned the report, said the motivation was to try to quantify the long-term impact on workers and their retirement savings when companies pay below the award.

TWU national secretary Tony Sheldon said the figures confirm that it is an investment issue and potentially an investment risk to super funds to invest in these companies.

He said in the next few months the union would work to put environmental and social governance (ESG) at the centre of the debate about investment behaviour.

“If a company has high labour standards and appropriate governance you have a more profitable company,” he said.

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