What is a worker?

Amongst credible economists and political leaders (so, not including Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison), it is universally accepted that Australia, like most other developed economies, has a wealth and income inequality problem. There are books and essays being written and read every minute about why this problem exists, but let me simplify in the words of a writer, not an economist: the people who own the capital (the business owners, shareholders and executives) are keeping profit from their investments for themselves, rather than dividing it amongst the people whose labour contributed to the return. This behaviour explains why company profits were up 40% to March this year, yet wages were only up 0.9%.

Before I go on, just a quick word about the behaviour that led to this outcome. You will often hear company executives and business journalists using passive language when talking about company profits and the way they are distributed amongst shareholders, executives and workers. Investments apparently ‘flow’, like water from a tap, as if nature intended shareholders to get a better deal than the workers who created the wealth. Anat Shenker-Osario makes the excellent point that this language erases responsibility for the actual decisions that led to these outcomes. Business owners and executives don’t stand in the hallway of their office and watch money flow to various stakeholders in imbalanced proportion, coincidentally, much of it into their bank accounts. They choose to make this happen.

If we, workers, are concerned about this situation of growing wealth inequality, we need to do something about the culture of what is accepted behaviour amongst business owners. We need to reassess our own language and culture around the relationship between what we do for a living, and with those in control of how much we get paid.

Another caveat here. The business owners should also be concerned with flat-lining wages and the resulting growth in inequality. Who is going to buy their products if no one has any money left after necessities? As this article points out, 60% of Australia’s economic growth is consumer based. Those consumers are, for the most part, the very same people who work for a living – who sell their labour and who haven’t had a meaningful pay rise in four years. Business owners and leaders don’t seem to fully understand this fact; no doubt they hope everyone else gives their workers a pay rise, but they’re safe not to do the same. In the long term, this selfishness is clearly to everyone’s detriment.

So what is a worker? It’s time we talked about this question, because I fear there are far too many of us who don’t fully comprehend what it means to sell our labour. I know a union secretary who has been told by members of his union that they don’t want a pay rise as they’ll be priced out of the market. These are workers who are qualified and experienced trades people. Yet, they have drunk the neoliberal-kool-aid that their bosses have been serving up forever which makes them fear that more pay will make them a bigger liability for their boss and they might be got rid of.

Let’s just get something straight right now. The boss doesn’t hire someone to do work for them out of the goodness of their charitable heart, and they don’t keep them employed because they’re nice people. I’m not saying aren’t good person, and are purposely trying to screw over their workers. But what I am saying is that people who are paid to do a job need to understand that without them doing that job, their boss couldn’t run their business, couldn’t produce profit, and would have no return to show for their investment of time and money. The boss needs the worker just as much as the worker needs the boss. The resulting compact between a worker and a business owner goes something like this: the business owner invests in setting up a business, contributing capital such as an innovative idea, market knowledge, physical resources and money. If they can’t create profit with their own two hands, they need people to do work for them to co-create profit from this investment. It really is as simple as that in pretty much every boss/worker relationship. Yet, somehow workers have become so brow-beaten by economic and job-insecurity, and so convinced by the neoliberal trickle-down promise, that they have been made to feel like they should feel lucky to provide their labour to a business owner, and that they do anything to displease the giver of luck, such as expecting to be fairly compensated for the labour they provide that contributes to the profits of the business owner, their luck might be taken away.

Workers need to stop believing their boss when they say tell them they can’t afford a pay rise. Workers also need to start demanding more from their boss, such as requiring that they be told how much profit a company has made. If the boss wants to deny a pay rise year in and year out, they need to look the worker in the eye and tell them how much the business owner, executives and shareholders have received for their input into the business (investment), so that workers can compare this to how much they have got for their input; their labour. Workers need to understand what we are and what our role is in profit creation. You saw it coming and here it is: to do any of this effectively, takes collective effort. Workers need to unite together in their demands to have their labour input respectfully remunerated. And the best way to do this is to join together IN A UNION. IN SOLIDARITY.


  1. When I first started work in 1955 the conditions were excellent. We had a 37.5 hours per day with 2 ten minute breaks apart for a lunch break what they used to call smokos. On annual holidays we were given 2 extra weeks pay and at Xmas time we were given 1 weeks extra pay. Now this was a monopoly company with no competition and a closed shop. Union membership compulsory.

  2. A worker is a person who must get out of bed to attend a place of work for their weekly/fortnightly pay, so in my opinion the description applies equally to a builders labourer and a doctor both must rise to do a days work. Since capitalism raised its ugly head the battle has been on between global capital and global labour, sadly in recent years global capital has gotten on top of global labour to the extent that wages have begun to go backwards, assisted by tory governments.

  3. Sadly, in most of today’s work places the boss doesn’t need THE worker he and, occasionally, she, needs A worker.
    The distinction is becoming more and more vital for any worker with the rise of hiring companies as the source of labour. The extra middle man takes acut from the employer and employee for doing, at best, little more than centrelink used to do.

    The fables of the dole fueled exploits of the surfies of the sixties still drives the dole bludger mentality of the baby boomers and the stories of abuse tick over refuelling the distrust of welfare(funny that companies can steal with impunity but welfare will be chased for a few dollars), Sadly, the memories of pommie union leaders drive the hatred of unions (I cannot listen to Doug Cameron without thinking of a rabid shop steward of 50 years ago).
    Worst of all is the one size fits all Aborigines with alcohol/gambling/violence driving the media and allowing the intervention and racist cards to make some rich at the expense of the poor.

    The many positives of Aboriginal initiatives, unions and the welfare systems are rarely reported in the media and even then drowned by the, invariably exaggerated, negatives.
    All workers need a union but only if it is called by another name. The anti-union laws passed today and will pass the senate before long.

    • VR, Yes every worker does need a union and this tory govt has done everything it can to discourage a worker from joining a union, until the ordinary worker wakes up and realizes that they are being picked off one by one unless they are in a strong union and unions realize that they must advocate strongly for every union member we will continue to slide down the slippery slope and wages and conditions will continue to suffer. In Solidarity, Shaun Newman

Leave a Reply to leighton8 Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s