The ACTU released the report Lives on hold: unlocking the potential of Australia’s workforce summing up the findings of its six month inquiry into insecure employment chaired by Brian Howe at its Congress this week.
The inquiry has produced a series of far-reaching recommendations.
The first set involve strengthening labour law across a number of dimensions; the second relate to improvements in the social safety net and opportunities for life-long learning; the third to changes in government funding, procurement and contracting arrangements which currently provide incentives to cut costs through minimising employment protections; and the fourth relate to greater linkages with civil society organisations in order to advance the issues of insecure employment. It is to be expected that these recommendations will be heavily contested by business groups and the Opposition.
The ACTU report marks an important step in being the first attempt of its kind to gain a thorough-going overview of the problems of insecure work in Australian society and economy. It effectively counters the denials that there are any problems by business groups such as the Australian Industry Group and economic commentators (e.g. Judith Sloan of The Australian), who claim that insecure work is really just flexible work - which is what workers want and mostly is not insecure at all. But the raw statistics, the powerful case study material, and evidence presented by a large number of individuals and organisations to the inquiry, attest to the enormous costs to individuals and families of being unable to sustain work on an ongoing basis with a living wage and basic rights and protections.
The great strength of the inquiry’s analysis is that it points to fundamental weaknesses across broad areas of Australian labour law, business practice (particularly that of governments) and social policy which, in combination, are undermining the social fabric by institutionalising insecure employment arrangements.
This has massive implications for social inequality, with a new divide emerging between secure and insecure workers, who also intersect with unemployed and other disadvantaged groups outside the labour market.
The report points to the immense barriers faced by many workers in making a transition from insecure to secure employment because the pathways within occupational structures have become so narrow. This effect flows on to unemployed people and other disadvantaged groups, who have increasingly reduced access to decent work and often find themselves cycling between welfare and work. Our social policy system continues to insist that paid work is the best route out of poverty and the key to social inclusion. But these are increasingly unsustainable assumptions what less viable settings for public policy.
The ACTU report also serves as a counter to the nonsense recently peddled by Joe Hockey in his speech in London. The key ingredients of Hockey’s social vision, “The End of the Age of Entitlement”, are low tax, hard work, minimal social protection, and self-provision. He advocates an immediate reduction in social programs in the cause of balanced budgets and lower taxation.
In his speech, Joe Hockey prescribes “working hard” in the vein of his own post-war immigrant father who became a successful businessman. He advocates “universal compulsory retirement schemes into which employees and employers must contribute so that after a man or woman has worked for 40 or more years, they have set aside an amount that can provide them with a reasonable income for a further 15-20 years at least”.
As pointed out in the ACTU report, these prescriptions bear little relation to contemporary realities. The expansionist, post-war economy - characterised by full employment and industry protection - may have opened opportunities to success for many people and, in accordance with the structure of society at the time, mostly men.
In the 21st century, rapidly changing technologies, new business models, tight-fisted government financing arrangements, and global competition make it increasingly difficult to sustain the vision of hard work and ongoing employment that Hockey extols. Hockey’s vision fails to take account of changing family structures, gender roles and women’s increased workforce participation albeit much of it in part time (45% of employed females) and casual work (58% of part-time jobs are also casual) over the life course with its attendant social risks.
The ACTU report comes at an important moment in the political cycle - when competing visions for economic and social policy are starting to be articulated. The challenge for the ACTU, in tandem with other progressive groups including civil society organisations, will be to sustain momentum and to find the air space to ensure the issues are heard.