Working for the (Australia Post) man

AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Ahmed Fahour and I have at least one thing in common: we both worked for Australia Post. Unfortunately for me, that’s where the similarities end.

Whereas Fahour got A$5.6 million a year for his troubles before he unexpectedly quit, I took home less the national average wage – even though my colleagues regarded me as something of a “gun” postie.

Thinking about why the boss of Australia Post made over 100 times more than the people at the sharp end of the business, not to mention ten times more than the prime minister, tells us something interesting about the way modern economies work. It might also help to explain why so many blue-collar voters are disenchanted with the prevailing political order, too.

Captains of industry, we are frequently told, have skills and abilities that are rare and in great demand. Their talents are highly portable and consequently measured by a global marketplace. If we don’t pay them a lot here, they will simply go elsewhere.

In short, they won’t get out of bed in the morning unless it’s really worth their while and they are being rewarded in the same way as their counterparts in Europe or North America.

Posties, on the other hand, have no choice about getting out of bed – long before the rest of the population, too. But whereas globalisation pumped up Fahour’s wage packet to stratospheric levels, posties – and all the other semi-skilled people who actually make things and provide useful services – find their wages being driven down buy the inexorable logic of global competition.

Whatever the economic merits of the recent decision to abolish some penalty rates in the hospitality industry, for example, it’s another indication of the differential outcomes that affect people at the “top” and the “bottom” of the labour force. It’s why inequality continues to grow. It’s also one of the reasons that economic activity generally is flat and stagnation is such a problem.

I’m sure Fahour does his best to spend all that loot, but there really must be a limit to how many paintings, apartments, cars and other manifestations of conspicuous consumption one can actually accumulate in one lifetime.

The reason Fahour deserves all this wealth, apparently, is that he transformed the fortunes of Australia Post. His big idea? Parcels were becoming more important than letters. Gee, who would have thought? I’m sure this hadn’t been noticed by the people delivering them.

To be fair, he did manage to retain quite a few of the existing staff during this reorientation of the business, rather than simply pushing them out of the door – something that happens rather a lot in a globally competitive economic environment. But, even so – $5.5 million?

At the other end of the spectrum the postie’s lot is not always a happy one and actually fraught with occasional danger. I was nearly killed twice – once on a pushbike when a mudguard caught in the wheel sending me hurtling over the handlebars, and once on a motorbike when it slid out from under me in the pouring rain into the path of an oncoming semi-trailer.

In the interests of journalistic accuracy I should confess that on both occasions I was rushing back to the office having finished my round. In those days you could go home when you finished delivering the mail. A greater and more effective incentive structure cannot be imagined, albeit one with some element of risk.

Mention should also be made of mad dogs, mad customers, naff uniforms, to say nothing of (literally) blistering heat in summer and soaking rain in winter. Add to this the difficulty of memorising which streets belonged to whom when sorting the mail, and then where to actually deliver your own round. I still have regular nightmares about this.

Some of these disadvantages were compensated for by the often hilarious camaraderie of my colleagues, but you get my drift – a surprisingly difficult, physically demanding and occasionally dangerous occupation that is not lavishly rewarded. “Postal worker, transport and warehousing” is routinely Australia’s most dangerous job category.

Corporate types expire, too, but often in rather more salubrious circumstances from altogether more agreeable causes. Too many long lunches can take their toll on the arteries, no doubt. Not even a gushing obituary in the fawning business press can make up for that I suppose.

So, how do we inject a little fairness into all this, not to mention revive a stagnant economy?

First, give higher wages to people who actually need the money and are likely to immediately spend it.

Second, use the tax system for some much-needeed wealth redistribution. I can already hear the howls of protest about that idea, but that’s a key role of government: managing the economy and its impact on society.

“Intervening” to fix glaring problems is actually the point of government, isn’t it? Problems don’t get much larger – especially at the moment – than inequality, loss of hope and a corrosive sense of unfairness.

Remembering that governments have an obligation to workers across the economy might help restore a little faith in an economic and political system that is currently under siege.