Beazley's Left It Too Late

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It’s enraging to hear Kim Beazley denounce the new industrial relations laws. Not because I agree with them, but because it’s high time he was reminded that, back in 2001, the last time he campaigned for the prime ministership, the ‘Americanisation’ of the Australian workplace was already well under way. Australian Bureau of Statistics data* suggests that, at the time, about 20 per cent of Australian workers were employed as casuals. I was one of them and I waited in vain for Mr Beazley to make our plight an election issue.

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By the time Mark Latham stood against John Howard in 2004, over 25 per cent of our workforce, had been casualised. Yet, once again, the ALP failed to appreciate the depth of concern in the community about the ongoing erosion of working conditions. Had either Beazley or Latham done so, Labor might well have fared better in the polls. At least, the Coalition might not have gained control of the Senate and the new IR laws might never have been enacted.

In fact, the Americanisation of our workforce can be traced back to the 1980s and the laissez-faire days of the Hawke Labor Government. The then-proliferating employment agencies made it possible for employers to quickly engage a dozen casual data processors, or a ‘temp’ for the day to replace an ailing secretary.

As the 1990s recession took hold, more and more Australian employers adopted the practice of retrenching permanent staff and replacing them with casuals who could be hired, like the agency temps, on a ‘needs’ basis. Increasingly, employers realised that casuals whose attitude or ability were found wanting could be legally dismissed on the spot without ado, let alone wages in lieu of notice.

It’s been argued that workplace deregulation has not only been welcomed by employers but by workers too. It’s suggested that the huge increase in casual and part-time jobs has given us more control over our lives; the option, for instance, of spending more time working on our novels or improving our golf swing.

Workers point out that it is not always easy to find a job close to home and that commuting is expensive and time-consuming. I recently spent four hours travelling to and from a casual evening market-research job. In other words, I spent as much time commuting as I did on the job.

In any case, research reveals that most part-time workers would prefer full-time jobs and most would like more work of some kind. ABS document 6265.0, Underemployed Workers, Australia, September 2005 states:

Over half (55%) of the 516,800 underemployed workers would have preferred to work full-time Just over half (53 per cent, or 275,400) of underemployed part-time workers looked for more hours of work in the four weeks up to the survey reference week.

Thanks to Sean Leahy.

As we know, over the past 20 years, manufacturing has drastically declined in Australia, along with investment in apprenticeships and research and development. The export of call centre and even clerical work has increased. The consequence of these shifts has included blatant discrimination against older Australians the spectacle of retrenched Australians in their 40s and 50s competing with backpackers for casual work. Meanwhile, executives have been awarding themselves staggering pay rises, while simultaneously eroding working conditions in the name of ‘globalisation’ and in response to the insatiable appetite of shareholders for an ever greater share of the pie.

Yet, until very recently, Beazley seemed unaware of (or uncaring about) the fact that, long before the new IR laws were tabled in Parliament, over one quarter of Australia’s 10 million-odd workers had already been forced to surrender sick pay and other entitlements that had been hard won by their parents and grandparents.

Over the last decade, it has not been uncommon to hear of friends and neighbours leaving sick beds and fronting up to work because they daren’t afford a day off work. Long before the recent ACTU television ads, millions of Australians faced the prospect of being unable to meet bills if they stayed home to care for a sick child. For the long-established and burgeoning army of casuals, public holidays have become a dreaded day without pay. Paid annual leave has become a luxury of the past for more and more working class Australian families. Even the middle classes are now beginning to bridle at the conditions under which their adult children are forced to work.

The main fear, however, has become unfair dismissal. We all know stories of permanent staff blaming their own blunders on casual temps, or supervisors trumping up charges against a worker they consider too old, too pretty or too smart. After dismissal, a reputation for incompetence makes it so much harder to find work. The personnel officers of old have been replaced by networking ‘Human Resources’ departments which justify their existence by subjecting applicants to increasingly exhaustive and demeaning background checks police and medical checks are now routine even for casuals who are not entitled to sick pay.

Workers are increasingly being robbed of their dignity as well as entitlements.

Initiative has also been repressed. For instance, market researchers and telesales staff are required to strictly adhere to a call centre’s official spiel. No matter how long-winded, amateurish or counter-productive the ‘script’ any deviation or judicious pruning by a mere operator is likely to provoke managerial wrath and dismissal. But what would Kim Beazley know about initiative, or the astonishing vanity of the composers of call centre prose.

The question troubling many of us is this: Is this just the tip of an iceberg? Is this the slow globalisation of pauperism?

Once, all of us in the developed world could look forward to an annual holiday. We might soon find ourselves looking forward to four weeks annual work a holiday from the daily grind for subsistence on some sort of barely adequate universal dole.

*ABS document 4102.0, Australian Social Trends 2005, released July 2005 states: Casual employment has increased over the last decade with over one-quarter (26%) of employees casual in 2003, up from 22% in 1993. Casual employees were most likely to be women (58%), aged 15-24 years (40%) and employed in lower skilled occupations in 2003. Most casual employees worked part-time (70%) compared with 16% of ongoing employees.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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