Opinion article

Building a fair future for working people

Following her apperance at State of the Nation, Australian Council of Trade Unions Secretary, Sally McManus, explores the issue of insecure work. She argues that Australia needs to realign its policy priorities to better protect the rights of employees.

It’s only natural to want to be optimistic about the future – the possibilities of new technology, the things we can achieve for society. It wasn’t long ago that our goals to end world poverty, solve climate change and achieve 100 per cent employment were set for 2020 and if you search for government strategies and visions for the future, you’ll find countless “Vision 2020” documents setting a plan for the future.

The thing is that with 2020 only three months away, we’re now living in that future. And our Governments and other leaders have failed to solve most of the big problems we set out to address. In fact, for Australian workers, 2020 has turned into a decidedly dystopian future.

The OECD now ranks Australia third in the world for non-standard forms of work. The self-employed, part time workers, casual workers and those on fixed term contracts now account for 44 per cent of the total workforce, and according to Jim Stanford from the Centre for Future Work, fewer than half of us enjoy a permanent, full time job with leave entitlements.

You won’t find those targets in any Government documents but make no mistake, this is very much planned – it is the slow and methodical dismantling of Australian workplace protections, hard-won by Australian workers through their unions.

The fact the majority of workers no longer enjoy any of the benefits that generations of Australians have fought for, such as annual leave, sick leave and protection from unfair dismissal that the law requires for permanent workers, is a national shame.

For all the hubris from the big business lobby about the benefits of freeing up businesses with more ‘flexible’ employment models to increase productivity and grow the pie, we’re now starting to see how hollow those assertions really were.

The economy is anaemic, wages are stagnant, house prices are down, consumers have stopped spending and all this while the Reserve Bank has lowered the cash rate to almost zero.

And the pie that’s left on the table is being eaten up by the very rich more than ever before with inequality. The average net-worth of the top 20 per cent in households is 93 times that of the bottom 20 per cent and whereas the top bracket has seen their net worth go up from an average $1.9 million to $3.2 million, the bottom 20 per cent has not seen any increase in their net worth in 15 years.

Wealth isn’t trickling down, it’s flowing up and Australians are seeing the consequence of this with tighter and tighter budgets as wages stagnate and the cost of living spirals out of control.

Insecure work is a key driver of our economic problems. When people don’t have secure employment, they can’t invest for the future. Their horizons become very short – pay the next bill or the over-due rent. And if they manage to get their head above water for a moment, without any guarantee of tenure in their job, the money gets stashed away for a rainy day.

The business lobby obscures the notion of insecure work by using workers’ desire for flexibility against them. Workers want flexibility – they want to be able to work from home more often, some want to vary their start times, and many want more time off when they’re having a baby or caring for a loved one. This does not mean they want so-called flexible contracts that allow the employer to sack them at a moment’s notice.

We need to act now to turn around insecure work, because we’re on track for a situation in a few decades where basic rights have been denied to multiple generations of workers, trapped in a world where it’s impossible to invest in their future.

Yet when the Morrison Government released its review of workplace relations, the Minister for Industrial Relations, Christian Porter told us that casualisation is not an issue. The review will look at the definition of a casual employee, but not to make it harder to casualise the workforce. Instead, employers are lobbying the Government to make a change so they can label a permanent worker “casual”, stripping even more Australians of job security protections and entitlements.

It’s almost 2020 and we need to inject a dose of reality into a debate about our future workplaces. Without a fundamental reversal of the current policy approach, which has seen the mass casualisation of our workforce, the future of work in Australia is grim for most workers.

So where is the hope for the future? As it always has, the hope for change rests with Australian workers. I’ve been energised by the response to the Federal Election. There is clearly frustration about the result among many working people, but overwhelmingly there is a belief that we may have lost the battle, but we will win the war, by banding together with strength in numbers to demand change.
About the authors

Sally McManus

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Sally McManus is the Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. She was previously the Vice President directing the ACTU's campaigns. Prior to joining the ACTU, Sally was the Branch Secretary and an Organiser with the ASU in NSW and the ACT for 22 years. During Sally's time as ASU Secretary their membership grew from 9,500 to 12,000 members. She has led many successful campaigns in the private, public and community sectors including a campaign preventing water privatisation and the Equal Pay campaign for community and disability workers that delivered between 18-40% pay increases.

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