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Social solidarity, Australian style

Last year the median hourly wage in America was $16.27 an hour. That is the median. That means that half of all American workers earned less than $16.27 an hour. Typical American workers maybe did and maybe did not get any paid vacation days. The bottom third did not even get paid sick days. If the typical American earns $16.27 an hour with no paid vacations, that does not speak well for “the richest country in the world.” It is a national embarrassment.

Across the Pacific, in Australia, most workers are covered by national industry-wide awards of $17.03 an hour in Australian Dollars or about $18 US. (using current exchange rates). People in a few professions make less; for example, toilet attendants get only $16.32 an hour. The Australian Dollar is very strong right now, which makes its minimum wage seem very high. Using the average exchange rate over the past five years instead would put the Australian basic industry award wage at $14.50 in US Dollars (just under $14 for toilet attendants).

But all full-time permanent employees in Australia, from toilet attendants to chief executives, get at least 10 sick days, 20 vacation days, and (depending on the state) 10 or more paid holidays every year. Like their American counterparts, part-time and temp workers don’t get these benefits. But they do get paid an extra 20%-25% in compensation to make up for fewer benefits. As a result, a part-time entry-level fast food worker in Australia makes a minimum of $21.25 Australian Dollars an hour. Not bad for flipping burgers. And all workers get free national health coverage.

At that level, no matter what exchange rate you use or how you adjust for cost of living, an Australian entry-level fast food worker makes more than the median — middle — average American. This must be mind-boggling to many of you. Most Americans would be financially better off if they moved to Australia and got fast food jobs. That is not an exaggeration. That’s a statistical fact.

Of course, most people who read websites like this do not have their eyes set on careers in toilet cleaning, or even fast food. They are or expect to be college-educated and credentialed. With a 4-year degree from a real (not online or for-profit) university, you reach the top 25% of all Americans. It may not feel like it, but you are in the elite. If you went to a selective university, like the University of Ohio or Texas A&M, you are in the top 10%. You are not going to end up flipping burgers. But you still might be better off in Australia.

So what does that $16.32 median wage mean to those of you in the top 25% or even in the top 10%?

If you believe that people should be self-reliant; if you believe that high incomes are the appropriate reward for intelligence and good grades; if you believe that the invisible hand of the market takes money from the undeserving and gives it to those who will make better use of it; if you believe that there is no such thing as “society,” then the answer is: not much. Sadly, too many Americans think this way. It is a philosophy called individualism and its associated government policies are called neoliberalism. This ideology was perfected right here in the United States and it is gone on to conquer much of the free world.

But things are different in Australia.

In Australia, most people of all educational and income levels stand together to make society a better place for everyone. University tuition is paid by the government, and you only have to pay it back if you make enough money to do so; spend the rest of your life a starving artist and you never have to repay those student loans. There’s national government-run health insurance that covers everyone with no co-pays and no deductibles. And if you don’t have a union to represent you in negotiating with your employer, the government will negotiate for you.

That’s right: those high wages for fast food workers don’t come from generous employers or a minimum wage law. They come out of negotiations between a government agency (Fair Work Australia) and industry-wide employer federations. We had pretty much the same system — seventy years ago, during World War II. Back then, American companies, workers, and the government came together to set wages and working conditions in a way that was fair to everyone. These arrangements ended in the United States after the War.

In Australia, companies, workers, and the government still work together to ensure a decent life for everyone. Australia has its problems — the suppression of indigenous nations; racial tensions between “white” Australians and newer immigrants from Asia and the Middle East; the outsized influence of mining companies–but all in all, Australia works. America no longer does. It is time the United States learned a thing or two from the rest of the world.