Why job ‘fexibility’ means insecurity
The Howe Inquiry into Insecure Work has shed light on just how far Australia has moved down the path of creating a two tier labour force writes Ben Hillier in Socialist Alternative.
Using figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the ACTU has shown that almost one quarter of employees – over 2 million workers – are working casual; that over 400,000 are “dependent” contractors (i.e. economically dependent on one client and having “no authority over their own work”); that another 300,000 are on fixed term contracts; and that several hundred thousand more are employed through labour hire firms.
The bosses call insecure work “flexibility”. They argue that many workers don’t want a full time 9 to 5 job. They instead want the ability to work the hours that suit their individual lifestyles. Typical of the line is that peddled by Tony Shepherd, president of the Business Council of Australia, who argued in the Murdoch press earlier this year that:
Mums and dads are increasingly able to balance working with managing the kids, and the ability of students to earn some money while finishing their study by working casual shifts in bars, for example, has become commonplace. Older workers are also seeking more flexible working arrangements to balance their work–life priorities. People with long commute times also want different ways of working.
Sometimes this is true. But 99 percent of the time “flexibility” is code for “free for all” in the labour market. Ultimately that means the boss gets to dictate the hours and conditions of work. Most people working in retail and hospitality, where casualisation rates are among highest, know this from experience: you get work when the rush is on and are sent home when it’s slow. An employee’s preference for hours may be taken into consideration, but only insofar as it corresponds to the employer’s actual needs.
Calls for “flexibility” began in earnest in the mid-1980s. They stemmed not from consultation with the working class about its lifestyle priorities, but from the reality of a nadir in corporate profitability. The bosses were crying out for ways to boost their returns as Australia was more fully integrated into the world economy. The solution they preached was labour market “deregulation”.
Ruling class forums like the HR Nichols Society argued for ditching unfair dismissal laws, penalty rates, collective agreements, OH&S laws, leave entitlements and the like. They wanted to smash the unions and to hold down wages. All this was the bread and butter of “increased flexibility”.
The project found expression in wave after wave of industrial relations changes that, while not giving the political right everything it wanted, undermined workers’ rights, leaving employers with more power and opening the ground to the precarious working relationships that are so prevalent today. More and more, workers have been left to “put up and shut up”. In the OECD, Australia is now second only to Spain in the proportion of employees engaged casually, and to the Netherlands in terms of part timers.
Insecure labour boosts profits at the expense of workers in a number of ways.
Firstly employers save money by paying less in wages. It is usually illegal to undercut the Award (although many do), so the easiest way to reduce the wage bill is to reduce the total amount of hours worked. If everyone were full time, that wouldn’t be possible without sacking someone. But with the rise of “flexible” labour, hours of work can be altered significantly, depending on the needs of the firm.
Secondly, the risk of undertaking business is transferred more readily onto the shoulders of the workforce. If business is slow, the boss can offset more of the cost simply by not engaging those employees s/he decides are unnecessary. The “risk profile” of the investment, as it is called in finance, is much more favourable when potential losses can be mitigated in this way.
Thirdly, the rate of exploitation can be increased by putting more pressure on those workers who remain permanent and full time. One “big picture” illustration of this is the relationship between underemployment and overwork. On one hand there are over 850,000 part timers who would like to work more hours, but can’t get them. On the other, there are 2.2 million who would prefer to work fewer hours (more than 1.8 million of whom work upwards of 50 hours per week).
By under-working the former group of employees, the latter can be more effectively screwed. The total amount of work that gets done is then much more than the actual price paid for its performance. Research by the Australia Institute suggests that the total amount of unpaid overtime performed by full time permanent staff totals a whopping $72 billion every year.
Lastly, precarious employment allows bosses to create a more pliant workforce. When people already have fewer rights they are less confident to speak up about unsafe work practices, or to stand up to bullying or harassment. The fact that so many are desperate to get a few more hours – or to be put on permanently – make them more likely to just put up with whatever shit the boss is doling out, just to make sure they still have a job tomorrow. In the longer term, this process is an important way for the bosses to try and undermine the power of the trade unions (which, compounding the problem, have been unsuccessful at breaking into the casualised sectors of the workforce).
Most insecure jobs are created in areas considered “unskilled”, and which therefore already have lower hourly rates of pay. So a broad pattern can start to emerge, where a “core”, highly-skilled full time permanent workforce is supplemented by a “periphery” of low-skilled precarious jobs. This doesn’t simply create a two tier labour force, but creates increasing stratification within the working class, intensifying the existing competition for jobs. In turn this can help blur the actual class distinctions between bosses and workers, by opening up space for new class theories that actually pit worker against worker (under the guise of “poor v privileged”), making it even more difficult to forge common unity and identity in the struggle for common rights.
The increasing power of employers to dictate conditions at work also has broader social consequences. Often, people’s income is irregular due to their hours not being guaranteed. Or their income is lower due to insufficient working hours. The result is a greater likelihood of piling up debt or of falling into arrears on mortgages, and greater levels of anxiety, depression, and even heart disease and other illnesses. The effect, over years, will also be a two tiered retirement population: those employed precariously often receive either no superannuation or fewer contributions than those in stable full time employment.
Yet despite what the Business Council of Australia and other corporate bodies tell us, the move to “flexible” work contracts is not just a natural reflection of a modern twenty-first century economy. The bosses have pushed for this situation, and governments – both Liberal and Labor – have responded in kind. Precarious labour is as much the result of our unions refusing to use their power to challenge the bosses’ agenda. Often they have simply gone along with it.
It isn’t the case that “there’s no going back” and that we just have to accept reality and adjust accordingly. There are a whole series of measures that could be introduced to address the problems of insecure work: mandating sick and holiday pay for all workers; giving casual employees the right to access permanent employment after a certain minimum period; capping the working week at 36 hours; establishing a government infrastructure program to provide permanent jobs; or lifting the minimum wage to a weekly, rather than hourly rate, set well above the poverty line. These are just a few examples.
Bosses and governments, however, are interested in the profitability of the economy over the needs of workers. Their agenda is to continue down the path of “flexibility” in the labour market.
The only way that will be turned around is by fighting them. Secure jobs will be a product of rebuilding the unions, and launching struggles to defend wages and conditions in the here and now. As some groups of workers have shown recently – the Baiada workers and the nurses in Victoria, and SACS workers nationally for example – such struggles are not pipe dreams; they are genuine possibilities when a lead is shown and when militants get the space to organise.