Our Obsession With Productivity Risks Distracting From Workplace Exploitation


Anyone following politics at present would be excused for thinking the country is mired in a productivity crisis.

Dire warnings have been offered as to the consequences of not increasing our productivity. So concerned is the government, they’ve asked the Productivity Commission to look into the workplace relations framework and identify possible improvements to it.

Certainly, productivity is important. Australia is one of the most open players in a world economy, so if productivity falls the economy will become less competitive globally and this will have an effect on real Australians. The reality, however, is that productivity is still increasing in Australia, and compares well to other OECD countries.

The problem is that the focus on productivity ignores the elephant in the room – the fact that the real labour crisis is the exploitation and slavery occurring within Australia.

The Federal Government has made a number of steps in the right direction, including commissioning the seventh National Roundtable on Human Trafficking and Slavery. We cannot, however, ignore what is still occurring at home.

Slavery is alive and well in Australia. The Australian Federal Police established a human trafficking unit in 2004, and since then it has investigated 558 cases of human trafficking, slavery and slave-like conditions.

Slavery in Australia can present in a form most of us would recognise: people not being paid, or being locked in their place of work, having their passports confiscated and being threatened with dire consequences if they try to leave. Sex-worker trafficking for legal and illegal brothels is the most common form of this kind of slavery in Australia. Nevertheless, an Indian cook in a restaurant suffered under similar conditions for 16 months before a co-worker helped him to escape.

But slavery in Australia can also be more insidious. It almost always involves shadowy contract labour hire companies, like those recently exposed by the ABC’s Four Corners program. These dodgy operators allow the ultimate client to have the best of both worlds: low labour costs and plausible denial if they’re found out.

The Fair Work Ombudsman’s investigation into the practices at Baiada, which found that foreign workers at the companies processing plants were paid about half the minimum hourly wage and were expected to work up to 18 hours a day without paid overtime, is just one example in a list of many.

In this ‘race to the bottom,’ some corporations claim that wages are too high in Australia, arguing that the demand for lower prices and better products is so great they can’t compete against foreign companies, who pay their workers much less. As a result, they claim they’re forced to reduce wages and increase working hours.

While these claims – and the resulting exploitation of workers – are horrifying, they don’t necessarily mean that corporations are inherently evil or part of a grand conspiracy; rather, as Robert Reich argues in his book Supercapitalism, they’re trying to gain whatever advantage they can.

The government must ensure that the Productivity Commission does not become another way that corporations can gain advantage by exploiting workers. However, the rest of us also need to play a role. As Reich says, we need to “make our purchases and investments a social choice as well as a personal one.”

At the moment, many of us look at the price tag before considering how an item has been produced and under what conditions. We might be appalled when we watch the Four Corners program on migrant labour, but our attention shifts quickly – we soon forget the outrage perpetrated at the expense of workers.

We need to vote with our wallets. We need to stay away from companies that exploit workers, and let governments know we won’t tolerate abuse of workers. But the government must act, too. Instead of focusing just on productivity, it’s also time to focus on workers.

Giri Sivaraman is a Principal in Employment and Industrial Law at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers.