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1907: Harvester minimum wage judgement by Justice Higgins

8 November 2022 All day

“In 1907 Justice Henry Bourne Higgins, President of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Court, set the first federally arbitrated wages standard in Australia. Higgins’s ruling became the basis for setting Australia’s minimum wage standard for the next 70 years.

Using the Sunshine Harvester Factory as a test case, Justice Higgins took the pioneering approach of hearing evidence from not only male workers but also their wives to determine what was a fair and reasonable wage for a working man to support a family of five.

The decision was a landmark case because, for the first time, employers were challenged to formulate wages on the basic needs of their employees rather than being solely concerned with the company’s profits.”

National Museum Australia

Did you know?

Justice Higgins’ determination of a just wage was influenced by Pope Leo XIII’s definition of a just wage in Rerum Novarum in 1891. Leo XII says that “remuneration must be enough to support the wage earner in reasonable and frugal comfort” (n 34) and goes on to specify that wages must be sufficient to enable a worker to “maintain himself, his wife, and his children in reasonable comfort” and “by economy” be able to save and purchase property (n 35).

For reflection

Neither Justice Higgins nor Pope Leo XIII considered the role of women in the workforce or question of wage justice for women workers. How might the ideal of wages sufficient to support a family be enacted today in a way that recognises the right of women to participate in the paid workforce and the responsibility of men to share in unpaid family and community responsibilities?