Are you feeling insecure?

by Ged Kearney

13 Feb 2012

Is your job less secure than the one you had five or 10 years ago? Are you a casual worker, or on a fixed-term contract or getting temporary work through a labour hire company? But, at the same time, are you working harder and longer hours than you were?

If so, it’s not just you, it’s the Australian workforce as a whole.

Today, the reality is that 40 per cent of Australians are in some kind of insecure work. That’s the combination of people who are casual (which is a quarter of the workforce alone), on contracts, and in labour hire, as opposed to the normal definition of standard, permanent jobs.

This is at a time when the number of hours Australians are working is higher than ever, with more and more people juggling two jobs.

As well as the lack of security two million of these workers have no paid sick leave, no annual or long service leave and no right to ongoing work.

This massive change in the culture of the Australian workplace has taken place in the space of a generation with little examination of its effects on families and communities. It has been driven by businesses that want the freedom to hire and fire and shift the risk of their business onto employees.

While I recognise that it is appropriate for some jobs and for some people, I do not believe that the growth in insecure work has come about because the people of Australia demanded it.

Today (Monday Feb 13th) a national inquiry into insecure work begins its hearings in Brisbane.  Chaired by former Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe, the inquiry will conduct 25 days of hearings at 23 different cities and towns. It will visit every state and territory, and will conduct hearings at places as far flung as Karratha, in the Pilbara.

The ACTU commissioned this inquiry because everywhere we go, workers tell us that they are concerned about the growth of insecure work, its encroachment into workplaces where secure jobs were once the norm, and its impact on workers’ lives, their families, and their communities.

This inquiry is a mammoth undertaking by the ACTU, and a demonstration of how serious we are about investigating the impact of and solutions to insecure work.

We want this to be a debate based on facts, and the voices of the Australian people.

The inquiry has already received over 500 submissions, including over 450 from individuals.

I believe that insecure work delivers benefits for employers, but has negative consequences for workers and communities that simply do not get included in an economic rationalist view of the world.

I do not believe we have fully calculated the costs of having so many people’s working lives surrounded by uncertainty.

As concerns grow about an economic slowdown caused by factors in the northern hemisphere, and local manufacturers like Alcoa or the car companies buckle under siege from a high Aussie dollar, the importance of secure, reliable jobs is only going to become more important. We need to protect the secure jobs of today, but just as importantly, we need to ensure that when secure jobs are lost, those workers are not left in a situation of no choice but to accept low-paying, insecure work for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, there is considerable evidence that this is too often the end result for workers who are the victims of structural changes to our economy.

British academic Guy Standing has dubbed this class of low-paid and insecure workers as the “Precariat” – a group of people that is growing in developed countries.

These are workers who bounce between a series of temporary jobs, just able to pay this month’s bills, but unable to save, afford a house or build a career. They do okay in good economic times but work dries up in bad.

Anybody in the precariat will struggle to pay bills, to improve their circumstances or take out a loan or mortgage. They get trapped in a cycle of debt and short-term jobs instead of a career.

People in insecure work find it hard to plan for the future and to manage their finances. How can you take out a mortgage if you don’t know if you will have a job in six months’ time, or how many hours you’ll work this week?

How can you plan to raise a family or develop a career if your job is a series of short-term contracts?

How can you spend time with your family or with a sick child if you have no choice to accept a shift at short notice, or not be offered one again?

Insecure workers have little if any bargaining power over pay and conditions, they have fewer opportunities for skill and career development, and they are more prone to workplace accidents.

Sure, they have the freedom to take their labour elsewhere, but if the only alternatives are similar jobs on similar pay this is a hollow freedom.

As often happens in these debates we hear the cry that increasing “flexibility” is necessary for improving productivity, economic growth and for keeping unemployment low.

Insecure work is a short-term fix at best and does not improve productivity in the long run.

In the long-term productivity is about investment: both in people through education and training and in equipment and infrastructure that makes workers able to produce more.

The “flexibility” business groups talk about is code for lack of control over when you work, longer working hours, short-cuts on safety, and worse results for customers.

I believe that overuse of casual or contract work can damage a company because it creates a workforce that has no long-term loyalty to the organisation and does not feel a stake in its success.

The idea that the choice is between a casual job and no job is often a furphy. Companies like Woolworths will employ people in Australia, the question is what pay and conditions will they pay them? We will always have nurses and teachers, the question is what level of respect and security do we want to give those professions?

Insecure work is shifting into jobs that once seen as permanent. Thousands of young teachers across Australia are beginning the school year on one-year contracts.

Christine, a single TAFE teacher from New South Wales in her 50s, said in her submission to the inquiry that: “I daren’t take out a loan because I dread not being to repay it. The precarious nature of my employment means I cannot plan for the future. I dread the nine-week summer break from employment at TAFE because I have no income from TAFE over that period and no guarantee of a contract.”

Dreading being on holiday? That’s a sign that the modern workplace is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Work cannot be separated from the rest of life.

In the long-term we can not have insecure jobs, and secure lives. It is time that someone looked into the true cost of insecure work, and what we can do to limit it.