It's Official: Aussie Workers Are Getting A Raw Deal On Their Super

Australia’s super system could give us so much more to retire on, without taking more out of our wages. But first the government needs to make changes to drive retirement incomes higher.

In its long-awaited final report on the efficiency and competitiveness of Australia’s leaky superannuation system, Australia’s Productivity Commission provides a roadmap. Weeding out scores of persistently underperforming funds, clamping down on unwanted multiple accounts and insurance policies, and letting workers choose funds from a simple list of top performers would give the typical worker entering the workforce today an extra A$533,000 in retirement.

Even Australians at present in their mid fifties would gain an extra A$79,000.

If this government or the next cares about the welfare of Australians rather than looking after the superannuation industry it’ll use the recommendations to drive retirement incomes higher.

So why the continued talk (from Labor) about lifting compulsory super contributions from the present 9.5% of salary to 12%, and then perhaps an unprecedented 15%?

It’s probably because (and Paul Keating, the former treasurer and prime minister who is the father of Australia’s compulsory superannuation system says this) they think the contributions don’t come from workers, but from employers.

How Much Money Do Australians Really Need For Retirement?

One of the best things about employment in Australia is superannuation. Under current laws, employers must pay 9.5% of your salary into an approved fund that is set aside for your retirement.

But with the age at which you can get the pension rising from 65 to 67 over the next few years, many people having larger mortgages than ever before, and life expectancy increasing, the amount of money needed to live comfortably after leaving the full-time workforce is a challenging question. So how much money do you actually need at retirement?

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To date, they’ve been dead wrong. And with workers’ bargaining power arguably weaker than in the past, there’s no reason whatsoever to think they’ll be right from here on.

Past super increases have come out of wages

Australia’s superannuation system requires employers to make the compulsory contributions on behalf of their workers. Right now that contribution is set at 9.5% of wages and is scheduled to increase incrementally to 12% by July 2025.

So, for workers, what’s not to like?

It’s that while employers hand over the cheque, workers pay for almost all of it via lower wages. Bill Shorten, then assistant treasurer, made this point in a speech in 2010:

Because it’s wages, not profits, that will fund super increases in the next few years. Wages are the seedbed of the whole operation. An increase in super is not, absolutely not, a tax on business. Essentially, both employers and employees would consider the Superannuation Guarantee increases to be a different way of receiving a wage increase.

The Henry Tax Review and other investigations have found this is exactly what happens. Increases in the compulsory super contributions have led to wages being lower than they otherwise would have been.

Even Paul Keating, speaking in 2007, made this point. Compulsory super contributions come out of wages, not from the pockets of employers:

The cost of superannuation was never borne by employers. It was absorbed into the overall wage cost […] In other words, had employers not paid nine percentage points of wages, as superannuation contributions, they would have paid it in cash as wages.

This is more than mere theory. Compulsory super was designed to forestall wage rises. Concerned about a wages breakout in 1985, then Treasurer Paul Keating and ACTU President Bill Kelty struck a deal to defer wage rises in exchange for super contributions.

When the Super Guarantee climbed from 9% to 9.25% in 2013, the Fair Work Commission stated in its minimum wage decision of that year that the increase was “lower than it otherwise would have been in the absence of the super guarantee increase”.

The pay of 40% of Australian workers is based on an award or the National Minimum Wage and is therefore affected by the Commission’s decisions. For these people, there is no question: their wages are lower than they would’ve been if super hadn’t increased.

Where’s the evidence employers pay for super?

If wage rises came from the pockets of employers then we should see a spike in wages plus super when compulsory super was introduced, and again when it was increased. But there wasn’t one when compulsory super was introduced – a point Bill Shorten has made in the past.

When compulsory super was introduced via awards in 1986, workers’ total remuneration (excluding super) made up 63.3% of national income. By 2002, when the phase-in was complete, it made up 60.1%.

Out of the 26 countries for which the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has data, Australia recorded the tenth largest slide in the labour share of national income during the period compulsory super contributions were ramped up.

Compare super funds:

Of course, changes in super aren’t the only thing that affects workers’ share of national income.

But the size of the fall in the labour share in Australia over the period when the super guarantee was increasing isn’t consistent with the idea that employers picked up the tab for super.

Would it be different this time?

Paul Keating argues that while in the past lifting compulsory super to 9.5% was paid for from wages, a future increase to 12% today would not be:

Workers are not getting real wage increases anywhere, and can’t get them. The Reserve Bank governor makes the point every week. So the award of an extra 2.5% of super to employees via the super guarantee will give them a share of productivity they will not get in the market – without any loss to their cash wages.

But such claims are difficult to square with concerns that workers’ weak bargaining power is one of the reasons current wage growth is so weak.. If employers don’t feel pressed to give wage rises, why would they feel pressed to absorb an increase in the compulsory Super Guarantee?

And while real wages (wages adjusted for inflation) haven’t grown particularly quickly, the dollar value of wages continues to grow: by 2.2% a year over the past five years. It would be easy for employers to simply reduce those increases to offset any increase in compulsory super – as they have in the past.

And no, more contributions won’t help workers

The Grattan Institute’s recent report, Money in Retirement, showed increasing the compulsory super would primarily benefit the top 20% of Australians. It would hurt the bottom half during working life a lot more than it helps them once retired.

Their higher super contributions would not improve their retirement outcomes: their extra super income would be largely offset by lower part-pensions. What’s more, the age pension is indexed to wages. If wages grew by less (as they would as compulsory super contributions were increased) pensions would grow by less too.

Lifting compulsory super would also cost the budget A$2 billion a year in extra tax breaks, largely for high-income earners, because it is lightly taxed.

That would mean higher taxes elsewhere, or fewer services.

For low-income Australians, increasing compulsory super contributions would be a thoroughly bad deal. It means giving up wage increases in return for no boost in their retirement incomes.

A government that wanted to boost the living standards of working Australians both now and in retirement would consider carefully all of the Productivity Commission’s suggestions including this one: an independent inquiry into the whole idea and effectiveness of Australia’s regime of compulsory contributions, to be completed ahead of any increase in the Superannuation Guarantee rate .

The Conversation


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Brendan Coates, Fellow, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.


Comments

    Their higher super contributions would not improve their retirement outcomes: their extra super income would be largely offset by lower part-pensions. What’s more, the age pension is indexed to wages. If wages grew by less (as they would as compulsory super contributions were increased) pensions would grow by less too.

    Add to this that if indeed the increased super would result in a lower wage then the employee is penalised *now* on purchasing and investing. Lets say that the super is increased by 3% on a $50,000 job. If instead the wage was increased by 3% that's $1,500 a year more for the employee. While some of that might go in tax it means that extra money is available now to offset a home loan (for example). Even one extra payment of $1500 a year makes a huge difference over the course of a 20 year home loan. Or it could be used for other essentials that are needed *now*. Or hell, even fun stuff like a holiday or a boat or jet ski that you won't be able to enjoy as a 70 year old.

    And bear in mind the Govt could backflip at some point and decide to start charging tax on Super payouts in the future. So all that extra money that goes in now may be lost in the long run.

    I much prefer a system with a reasonable base amount and then allow the contributor to top up if/when they have spare cash.

      I much prefer a system with a reasonable base amount and then allow the contributor to top up if/when they have spare cash.

      Problem has always been that the vast majority of people don't. So compulsory super came about to essentially do it for them. Putting it a different way, if a 20 year old had a choice between a couple of hundred into super, or spending that money at the pub, which do you think they'll pick? They wouldn't change that mentality until its too late.

      There is still some scope for people to top it off themselves, but when the general rule is to put 15% of your income into super, nobody is ever going to voluntarily do that. And you need to be doing it early for compounding interest to be able to do its job. Which as I said above is counter to human nature.

      So now we have it disguised as employer contributions and employee contributions. There are decades of history behind how we got to that point as well, and people working before roughly 2000 wont be getting as strong a benefit as those that started after that.

      The history is part of why boomers tend to own a lot of properties, and why Gen X looked at property favourably as well. Super plans weren't that popular until Keating forced the issue in the early 90's, so building a retirement nestegg often relied on property.

        Sorry, since that obviously wasn't clear I meant I'm happy with *super* having a reasonable base amount. I don't think it needs to be increased beyond what it is now.

        And honestly, it's never too late. Realistically most people stop the hard drinking/partying phase by the time they're hitting 30. So that's still more than 30 years to set up a decent super nest egg. Sure it may not be as much as if you started your super at 18 but the tradeoff is you enjoyed yourself more when you were younger.

        There are a bunch of reasons property was so popular. The prices were tremendously lower at the time. The house I'm in now is cheap in the current market at about $350,000. In the 70s it sold for about $17k. And smart buying would see far, far better returns by buying rural or semi rural acreage for bugger all in anticipation of a developer subdividing.

        It's also a less volatile investment since it can't mysteriously vanish like shares if the company goes tits up. And yeah, the asset test made it less popular since it meant the properties had to start making money to support themselves rather than just sitting "fallow".

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