Some Thoughts for the Jobs Summit- Arthur Chesterfield-Evans
27 August 2022
Definition of unemployment
Years ago, the ABS definition of unemployment was less than 25 hours a weeks of full time work,
which was considered to be a living wage.
The world’s definition was any regular work, even 1hr per week. The Australian definition was
changed ‘so comparisons could be made’ and unsurprisingly our unemployment rate improved
dramatically. But the figure is actually meaningless as an index of how the population’s work status
is. All gig workers on non-living wages are treated the same as full time permanent workers as the
latter category dwindles mightily.
What no one is saying is that the unemployment rate is very low because all the foreign students
and visa workers, who were getting very exploited in the gig economy, are no longer there. Even
backpackers, willing to work for poor wages as a ‘life experience’ are no longer here.
Employers have had a dream run for about 40 years. What has happened is:
- Australia has de-industrialised so that the organised groups of full time workers that were
unionised and could demand a reasonable share of wages has dwindled hugely as a
percentage of the workforce, weakening the unions.
- The governments, inspired by neo-liberal ideas of free markets, have attacked unions so that
wages can be lowered. Wages are seen as a cost to the exclusion of their other attributes.
- Globalisation has made workers compete across the world, so as long as the goods produced
are transportable or the service offered can be done remotely, many jobs can be ‘offshored’.
- It is easier for employers either to import goods rather than manufacture them here or to
move services offshore.
- Increased labour mobility has helped:
a. The development of Education as an export commodity has brought many students
here, who are only allowed to work 20 hrs per week. Since they cannot live on that
amount of money they are forced to work ‘illegal’ hours, so employers pay cash or
low wages or both.
b. The ‘work visas’ from developing countries has allowed tasks such as fruit picking to
be done at exploitative labour rates as the workers do not know what they are
entitled to. No effort seems to have been made to inform them, and they have no
power if they were informed.
- The internet has enabled jobs to more casual, as recruitment is quicker and simpler, allowing
more part-time and short-term work.
- ‘Labour Hire’ has meant that the rights of workers can be undermined. Because workers are
not ‘full time’ but only get what shifts are ‘available’, they can still be ‘with the agency’ in a
legal sense, but be given no work. If there is a workplace injury, creating a legal obligation
to the employer in terms of wages and rehabilitation, this can be avoided or minimised. The
person who they actually did the work for (and who was responsible for their injury) is not
their employer- the agency may be, but even they can say that they are merely a conduit to
a workplace who take a commission only for the hours worked.
In economic terms, workers are now in a perfect market, so the price falls. Higher executives claim
to be in a ‘world market’, so can take stratospheric salaries and the gap between rich and poor will
grow. This is very bad for social cohesion, and in the subcultures of management there is a real and
dangerous loss of contact with the world in which the employees live.
What is needed is:
- Government has to recognise and state that in an unregulated market, the power of
employers will allow the continuation of the increasing inequity of the last 40 years. People
are unwilling even to state this obvious fact.
- The Government needs to recognise, acknowledge and implement the idea that everyone
should be able to participate in society. Not all jobs will make a profit, and a volunteer
framework needs to be created for older folk and long term unemployed which gives them
dignity and the ability to participate in society. But volunteers must not be cynically used to
replace paid jobs; they should concentrate on doing jobs that are needed but otherwise
might not be done. A structure of tasks and volunteer coordinators is needed, organised by
local government and based on models such as the bush regenerators of Hunters Hill.
- Award wages for job categories are needed to set norms as a starting point for negotiations.
- Collective bargaining with general awards, and employers that want to deviate from them
have to justify their position with appeals to a Tribunal.
- Support for Unions. Many workers cannot negotiate with big businesses any more than ants
can negotiate with elephants. Bureaucratic Fair Work Commissions are needed to enforce
rules, but there have to be people at the workplace to observe and advocate. The
Commission cannot replace workplace membership systems.
- Aged Care and Disability industries need rules set with more input from residents,
complaints mechanisms and enforcement. Self-regulation is frankly no regulation.
- A regulator and external enforcement is also needed in the aged and disability residential
sector. Currently this is driven by real estate- the idea is to get people to sell their houses,
move into overpriced units and then be ripped off, even in the supposedly not for profit
sector. Once in there the level of care needed tends to increase, but not to be provided.
- A systematic assessment project for overseas qualifications is needed. In my own
experience there are large numbers of very well qualified Koreans who have nothing
recognised and work in very menial jobs. This is discrimination and a waste of talent.
- The Commonwealth Employment Service should be re-established as a Federal public
service department. The idea that public servants do not work hard is frankly wrong and
offensive. The private sector incentives have resulted in cream-skimming. The onerous
‘mutual obligations’ are punitive and just waste employers time. Centrelink does not meet
its mutual obligation to help people. It takes up to 2 hours for them even to answer the
phone. They are currently set up like a business that strives to minimise its costs by
deflecting customers’ requests. A whole new philosophy is needed in job placement.
- Training is needed, especially in trades. Apprenticeships have been badly neglected as
education has been seen as a commodity, and university education almost a universal right
to gain entry to the upper middle class. TAFE, which was a very valuable training venue to
get skills, a place where aging tradesmen could transfer their skills and a major social ladder
for people pf all ages to better themselves, and hence a considerable driver of social equity
has been long neglected. The Government needs to research the skills mix needed,
subsidise places to fill those needs, and subsidise apprentices, obviously with supervision so
that here cannot be systematic churn, which has happened with some job subsidy programs.
This research can be done within the public service, hopefully with some links to academic
departments that study employment needs.
- In terms of future industries, the government has to have policies that favour the change to
renewable energy. An example of this is that Electric cars should be able to plug into the
grid and buy and sell electricity on the spot market. This will make them part of the solution
to the problem of energy storage, rather than exacerbating peak demand. It will also allow
owners to offset their purchase costs. If there is a change of policy the jobs in this case will