Social policy can secure a better future for working women

Long-term job insecurity affects the quality of life for many women. vlima

Against a backdrop of international economic uncertainty, there are pressures for greater labour flexibility as employers complain of costs and reduced competitiveness with the high Australian dollar. The issue of job insecurity has an uneasy interface with unemployment at a time when there are retrenchments across local industries and reports of mass unemployment in the USA and Europe.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions’ (ACTU) current inquiry on insecure employment estimates that precarious employment affects around 40% of workers. While there is likely to be resistance to improving labour protections at any time, research shows that other responses, particularly in social policy, also need to play a role in countering job insecurity.

Two related projects on women in low paid, insecure jobs were undertaken in the past four years – one for social welfare organization Melbourne Citymission, and another recently completed, for a Monash PhD. While focusing on women, many of the findings are equally relevant to men. The research uncovers emerging developments through detailed, in-depth inquiry with individual workers and interrogation of large surveys and data sets.

There were several main pathways into insecure employment. If a woman had left a secure, permanent job for family reasons, or had lost it in an organisational restructuring process, it was difficult to regain a secure job at the same level. This is not surprising since the purpose of restructuring was to abolish a large portion of permanent jobs permanently. Age discrimination also plays a role in reducing opportunities for workers 45 and over. Many single mothers are locked into insecure jobs because as these are often part-time jobs, they are most likely to offer the flexibility they need to fit with their children’s needs.

However, most part-time jobs are also casual and insecure. The research found that most women were entrapped in insecure jobs over the long term, contrary to the idea that these are stepping stones to better jobs. Many insecure jobs are poorly paid and the hours are insufficient and unpredictable. This may mean living close to the poverty line day to day, and finding it impossible to get ahead what less save for emergencies and old age. Other insecure workers with better pay, such as in education, say that quality of life is reduced by continuing uncertainty and inability to plan (obtaining a home loan, for example).

Many insecure jobs often involve arduous performance requirements in tandem with distressing surveillance and monitoring regimes such as in call centres, process and clerical work. A number of women noted that they were treated just “like a commodity”, “like a number”, or “a piece of meat” and were debilitated by stress, anxiety and fear. These conditions take their toll on mental and physical health and foster social exclusion, which is an outcome of many of these jobs.

The ACTU faces a significant challenge in formulating remedies to counter job insecurity. The business model in many industry sectors, both public and private, is based on having a core of permanent workers and a large pool of insecure and readily disposable workers. It is hard to see how the resourcing and institutional arrangements that are the basis for these business models will change any time soon. The university sector is a case in point.

The research also shows that employers avoid expanding secure employment by contracting out, off-shoring, work intensification strategies, and creative employment arrangements such as extended probationary periods and combining permanency (perhaps one day per week) and casual status in the one job.

The research points to an uncomfortable reality: that employment can no longer bear the full weight of aspirations that cover social mobility, social inclusion and participation, equality of opportunity, and alleviation of poverty. However, much of social policy is constructed on the expectation that employment can deliver these social aspirations without doing much of the heavy lifting in its own right. The question: what should social policy be doing?

Drawing on the analysis, the most important role for social policy is in facilitating job mobility. This could have important effects in reducing entrapment in insecure jobs with all their negative effects, reducing labour commodification, and fostering the principles of ‘decent work’. The International Labour Organisation (–en/index.htm) says that ‘decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives. It involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.’

One relevant social policy model is Employment Retention and Advancement (ERA) (see for example trialled in the UK and USA in the past ten years. It is designed so that the quality, pay and prospects of jobs, individual long term goals, and sustainability within a job, are key considerations in the unemployment/welfare-to-work transition process. ERA may also include provision of financial incentives through the tax or social security systems to ensure that work pays.

A number of women in the research could have benefitted from such a program. One woman, who had lost a public-sector job, had then been unemployed for three years and had applied for 600 jobs (as required under social security law), out of which she had attained two short-term jobs.

This experience had seriously undermined her confidence and mental health. Another woman had raised five children and had received a sole parent payment after a divorce. There had been no assistance for her to obtain a ‘decent’ job at the end of her social security eligibility, so she was forced into cleaning work while sustaining an injury. These examples suggest that a proactive social policy that had helped the women gain a decent job in the first place, could also help to prevent future social problems and further welfare dependency.

The need for multiple careers over one’s life course amid the swiftly changing contemporary economy and labour market has been well documented, but not much supporting policy has ever been implemented to assist in career transitions especially for disadvantaged workers. There is also increasing pressure to continue employment to older ages with the age pension eligibility age set to increase to 67 by 2023.

It is unclear how the workers in this research will be able to sustain employment into their late fifties what less their late sixties. Many women (and many men) in insecure jobs cannot afford the costs of retraining and have no access to career advice and support. Social policy needs to actively provide financial assistance and support for such workers to undertake retraining for better quality, sustainable employment.

A greater emphasis on social policy does not preclude the onus on employers to improve job security in the ways that the ACTU recommends. However, social policy has an important role in fostering aspirations around social equality, inclusion and opportunity. The hope is that the ACTU will be able to formulate sophisticated and practical recommendations covering both labour regulation and social policy out of its inquiry, backed up by a concerted campaign for implementation.

The inquiry and campaign website is