Jo-anne Schofield
Thursday, 5 December 2019

Jobs are the key

Workers today are facing new challenges of climate change and automation and they do so against a backdrop of insecure work, declining pay, weakened rights to organise and bargain collectively and  the dismantling of social protections and public services.   

Policies and technological changes have, in many respects, been designed and driven with the sole aim to reduce collective employee power over the last thirty years.  It is not surprising that this has had widespread and well-documented detrimental impacts on Australian levels of inequality and workers share of wealth in the economy. These include:

  • A steadily falling share of GDP going to labour since the 1990s, despite increasing levels of productivity;
  • Significant labour underutilisation;
  • Increased numbers of workers on temporary, low-wage and precarious jobs, with 40% of Australians working in insecure circumstances;
  • Levels of inequality that are higher than at any time over the last 70 years;
  • An uneven distribution of working hours across the working population, with some workers being highly overworked, and others receiving insufficient and unpredictable hours of work;
  • A massive accumulation of wealth to corporations and high worth individuals on the one hand, and declining standards of living for workers on the other. 

None of this has happened by accident. 

Hard fought rights by generations of union members have been wound back through the gig economy, new rostering systems and platforms, labour hire, casualization, contracting out, and good old fashioned greed.  It’s worth noting that the gig economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of some of our most profitable global corporations.

The sad fact is, that big business and successive governments have reshaped our economy and values so it is now considered acceptable that people who go out to work every day live in poverty. A recent report confirmed that 5 million Australians cannot afford to eat every day. 

A secure, permanent job is still the primary gateway for people to attain full economic and social citizenship in Australia.  Insecure work is associated with relationship tensions over time and money, anxiety about how the bills will get paid, less time with friends and family, reduced chance to participate in education and recreation, housing stress, and less capacity to volunteer and undertake community service. People with insecure jobs have lower levels of financial well-being, and are more likely to be forced into working multiple jobs, involving logistical difficulties of shift co-ordination, as well as higher tax rates. 

For most people, a secure job will remain one of, if not the, primary anchors for their own and their families’ well-being.  If, as we contend, it is the role of government to set policies that enable human beings to flourish and take care of one another, then the problem of widespread insecure and precarious work should be addressed as a matter of high priority.

The United Workers Union has been formed to organise against these trends and win real permanent change for working people.  

In July 2019, 45,000 members endorsed the creation of the UWU in a voluntary ballot conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission.  Over 95% of members in all states and territories voted YES to support the UWU, sending a clear message that workers want renewed and modern unions, and they want unions with ambitious plans to win so that we can, collectively, tackle the challenges posed by inequality, corporate power, greed and its consequences – insecure work, fragmented jobs and low pay.  

Today, the United Workers Union is organising in an environment of weak laws that not only enable, but encourage, the continued undermining of a living wage, and secure jobs.  This is best seen through the attacks on penalty rates, rampant wage theft by big business, the undervaluing of women’s work in educating and caring for our young and our elderly, and – above all – the lack of respect that drives an agenda where working people are seen as disposable.  

The prevailing capitalist explanation to these issues is to accept exploitation, to tell people to work harder, to “get a better job”.   The United Workers Union does not accept this explanation. We are here, unapologetically, to rebuild worker power, to defeat exploitation, and to take action to elevate the voice of workers in deciding their future.  We are here to work with Labor on policies that will restore the balance of our industrial laws to ensure no one is left behind. Insecure and precarious work should be addressed as a matter of high priority.

A Labor government has a major and irreplaceable role to play in ensuring that the benefits of our economy, and of technological change, are shared fairly and that our laws support decent jobs, rather than undermine them. 

It essential that government identify the industries and occupations that will be strategic and essential for Australia in the 21st century, and take active steps to ensure that that jobs in these areas are decent and well paid.  Jobs should provide a fair income, security and social protection for families, prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organise and participate in decisions that affect them, and equality of opportunity.

Investment in strategic, high-skilled, high-technology, capital-intensive industries will be a necessary part of the process, but governments must not overlook the millions of jobs in care, education, cleaning, security and hospitality that we know, with a very high degree of certainty, will exist in 21st century Australia and beyond.   It is unacceptable that so many young people, with a high degree of vocational commitment to occupations such as Early Childhood Education and Care are presently deterred from entering or staying in these careers because the wages on offer are too low to be compatible with the possibility of having their own families or living independently in secure housing. 

Government also has a direct role in implementing procurement policies that ensure its purchasing power is used only to reward companies with a positive record on secure employment and payment of company tax and in the funding of aged care and disability support sector that is adequate to enable support workers to provide personalised, coordinated, responsive and safe services in a sector that depends, ultimately, on quality care and relationships that must enable human beings to flourish and take care of one another.  

What we’re fighting for isn’t new, but needs regeneration. Everyone deserves a job they can count on. 

For Labor, with a renewed vision that puts jobs at the centre of the political debate, the United Workers Union is on common ground. 

Our current broken system has both Labor and Liberal fingerprints on it, as major parties have been captivated by free market. …..

To turn this around, Labor must support strengthening unions through a strong industrial relations framework that protects our right to organise and take action, one that reaches into the new gig economy jobs. 

Labor must restore our award system, minimum wage, penalty rates and National Employment Standards to provide an adequate baseline of protections. 

Labor must ensure a modern collective bargaining system beyond the entrerprise, one that supports workers joining and being active in their unions; one that removes the restrictions on the right to strike so that workers can take collective action and win jobs they can count on.

Thanks to Frances Flanagan for previous research contributing to the United Voice Submission into the Inquiry into Future Work and Workers, and to Erin Watt for assistance.

About Jo-anne Schofield:

Jo-anne Schofield is the National President of United Workers Union.