This week marked the 114th anniversary of the Sunshine Harvester Judgement, widely recognised as a landmark case in Australian industrial history. While this judgement is sometimes simply described as a victory for workers’ rights, the importance of this case, and its relevance today, becomes clearer when it is remembered as an important moment in a longer struggle for fair working conditions.
In 1906, the federal government passed the Excise Tariff Act, which stated that all employers who did not pay workers “a fair and reasonable wage” were subject to additional tax on their products. The Sunshine Harvester Company applied for an exemption from this tax, despite unions representing its workers objecting that the company’s wages were far from fair. To assess the ensuing case in the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Court, Justice H.B. Higgins insisted that “fair and reasonable wages” should support workers’ lives, and therefore collected a range of evidence. Higgins reviewed interviews with unions representatives, workers, and workers’ wives, documenting their basic costs of living but also the costs of maintaining a wider quality of life, including leisure and union membership fees.
Higgins’ judgement found that a fair and reasonable minimum wage must meet “the normal needs of an average employee, regarded as a human being in a civilised community.”
It is important to acknowledge such landmark decisions without interpreting them as the end point of a struggle, or as absolute victories. This is especially the case in Australia, where active labour organising meant that there were many early noteworthy successes – such as the Stonemasons successfully striking for the 8 Hour Day, with no reduction in pay, in 1856. While remembering this date is important, it took until 1916 for the 8-hour day to be extended to Victoria as a general standard, and it was not until 1947 that unions won the 40-hour work week over five days. Despite those victories of the past, today “flexible” and precarious working conditions mean that the rights to leisure and rest, which were central to the 8 hour movement, have been significantly eroded.
This is also the case with the Sunshine Harvester Judgement. Despite how influential Higgins’ decision would become, the judgement was later ruled invalid by the High Court, finding that regulating employment conditions was outside the remit of the Excise Tariff Act. This was accompanied by further strikes and lockouts at the company as the owner continued to resist paying workers in accordance with Higgins’ judgement, for whom the struggle was not over.
Higgins’ judgement was also limited in the types of cases where it was deemed to apply. It was not until the early 19070’s that equal pay was granted for men and women in another landmark case; [DLB3] yet gender inequalities are still reflected in workers’ real wages and entitlements decades after that decision.
The Sunshine Harvester Judgement was also not applied in calculating Indigenous workers’ wages, with significant exclusions built into federal and state employment legislation persisting for decades after Higgins’ judgement. Indeed, the fight for wage justice is ongoing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including recent Federal Court actions fighting for stolen wages which were withheld “in trust” under State “protection acts”. The injustice of this historic wage inequity therefore reaches into the present, and even where these cases have been successful, many claimants have received payments far below what was expected, with one worker receiving a total of $12,000 for over 40 years of domestic service work.
In remembering the Sunshine Harvester decision, it is therefore crucial to acknowledge that it was not an end point in the fight for fair wages, but demonstrates that fair and equal pay must be fought for, and actively defended. Viewing history as a neat story of progress risks complacency, assuming that the battles previously fought have all been won. This can be taken advantage of by employers and corporate interests, for whom equitable conditions are less important than profits. This is a crucial issue in contemporary struggles, as seen when precarious working conditions are exploited to undercut wages and entitlements, and in the pervasive practices of wage theft and underpayment.
Remembering the past in this way extends greater respect to those who struggled for change, by insisting on a story which is bigger than simply the “victories”. It allows us to tell a story which refuses to reinforce the exclusions of the past, and allows us to ensure those who were left out of past victories are not left behind in future. Anniversaries such as this week’s therefore give us an opportunity to acknowledge the tasks ahead, while taking inspiration from those who went before.