Not long before the sports rorts revelations and its dubious spreadsheets made Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie somewhat of a household name, I asked her a question about Tasmania’s increasingly casualised and insecure workforce.
Obviously, being reliant on tourism, hospitality and agriculture, the state’s proportion of insecure workers would be higher than most.
We were standing at a timber mill in the state’s North, and she somewhat dismissively gestured towards it, saying “keeping full-time jobs here locally” by way of an answer.
“That’s why we’re pouring money into supporting industries such as the forestry, fishery and agriculture industries,” McKenzie said.
She was simply trotting out the usual government line when asked about insecure work – that the government was supporting industries that employ full-time workers. The implication was that if someone is not getting enough hours, it’s their fault for not pursuing jobs in industries that have more full-time work, rather than the fact that the increase in casual, part-time and labour hire work is now an intentional feature of the economy.
This month, the Productivity Commission demonstrated what has long been suspected – that part-time and insecure work has grown as a proportion of the workforce since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, especially for workers under the age of 35. It’s hardly surprising, given the constant talk of workplace “flexibility”.
The report – which analysed the decline in youth income since the GFC – showed that while the long-term decrease in full-time employment leading up to 2008 was largely due to people studying, that has not been the case since then.
It has also masked the true levels of unemployment and under-employment in the past decade.
It’s clear to see that casual and labour hire work has moved well beyond its original intention of providing flexibility, creeping its way into more industries, not the least the public sector. Labour hire companies are providing more workers in places like Centrelink walk-in and call centres, replacing permanent employees.
The Productivity Commission found that – based on the workforce data post-GFC – this balance has placed us in a precarious position should another crisis come along.
And COVID, which hit the industries most reliant on insecure workers hardest, could not have been a worse crisis for the Australian workforce. The very nature of the crisis – in which people must remain away from work – meant casual workers had no income unless they continued going to work. And many have, making the crisis even worse.
“Evidence from the first three months of the crisis suggests that the workers in these sectors were primarily young, and on low wages,” the Productivity Commission report reads.
“The COVID-19 recovery period may not see strong growth in those sectors, and therefore unemployment among the young could remain high for some time.”
The report warned that individuals without a financial fall-back – that is, without rich relatives or similar – will face lasting problems that are unlikely to ever be resolved.
The GFC had presented an ongoing problem – weak demand – and as always occurs following a financial crisis, capital had attempted to find a solution: in this case, greater flexibility. And, as usual, the seeds of the next crisis were sown in the solution to the last crisis.
The government was warned time and again about the inherent risks associated with Australia’s growing insecure workforce, but like with senator McKenzie, these concerns were dismissed out of hand with just lip service.
But as the downturn continues, solutions to the looming jobs crisis must be found – one that guarantees employment for Australians. And the solutions are out there already.
Noel Pearson has presented a plan to the Morrison government for a job scheme to take over from JobSeeker and JobKeeper, in which local governments would allocate job hosting functions to organisations within their communities, allowing anyone willing and able to work to obtain meaningful employment in social services, community amenity and environmental stewardship. Rather than Work for the Dole, it would be full-time, minimum wage based on the principle that by funding these jobs, the government would be directly funding the productive potential of the economy.
It would allow people to gain skills for when relevant jobs were available in the private sector, and could be tailored for educational needs.
This is just one example of a jobs guarantee. Many others have proposed similar schemes in light of COVID.
Rather than dismiss the realities of our unequal and problematic workforce, why not use the current crisis to make a lasting impact for the unemployed