Interview: Trading in Principle
Unions: While We Were Away
Politics: Follow the Leader
Bad Boss: Safety Recidivist Fingered
Economics: Casualisation Shrouded In Myths
History: Worker Control Harco Style
Review: Other Side Of The Harbour
All The Way With FTA?
State Of Confusion
Give Them A Medal
Casualisation Shrouded In Myths
I returned recently to the United Kingdom having spent a very enjoyable, but too brief a visit to the School of Economics and Political Science at the University of Sydney. During this time I presented my research on the long-term labour market in Europe, North America and Australia.
Discussions with colleagues took place in the usual sorts of conference and seminar venues that you would associate with a visiting scholar. The papers prompted lively and interesting debates and also seem to tap into a wider vein of concern over labour market flexibility in Australia. These discussions have their counterparts in other debates that take place in all parts of the advanced world. In the United States, the discussion is about 'contingent employment', in the United Kingdom it is 'job insecurity', in France and Canada the discussion fits into a broader perception of 'precariousness'.
In Australia the debate seems preoccupied with casualisation. At the time it was difficult to appreciate how politicised these discussions had become in Australia and to anticipate that my research might be used in support of policies that promoted the casualisation of the workforce.
The discussion moved out of the rarefied confines of academic exchange via an interview with ABC finance correspondent Stephen Long. This was broadcast twice just before Xmas, then transcribed and placed on the web under the headline 'The Myths of Casualisation'. The headline writer was perhaps too concerned to 'sex up' the article, but perhaps this was understandable given that the news media has to win an audience for its stories. However, the subsequent telling and retelling of the research by business and government leaders revealed just how politicised the discussion has become.
The initial interview transcript was taken as the basis for a press release by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry which was, in turn, the basis for a press statement by Kevin Andrews, Federal Employment and Workplace Relations Minister on January 5th. The latter claimed that Labor's attack on casualisation and flexibility was 'mindless' and went on to state that "Research by Professor Kevin Doogan of the University of Bristol shows most casual workers in Australia are happy with their pay and conditions..'.
While my research has attempted to question public misperceptions about the nature of the contemporary employment, it also seeks to avoid creating new sources of confusion and misrepresentation. For the record, I have never offered any suggestion or provided any evidence to support the view that casual workers are 'happy' with their pay and conditions. Indeed, I have not been concerned with questions of pay and conditions but with labour market attachment and job insecurity. In the interests of a balanced discussion it is necessary to state briefly the findings and conclusion of this research.
In the first instance, the research seeks to intervene in debates about 'the new economy'. We are said to live in an 'age of insecurity' which has witnessed the transformation of work, brought about by rapid advances in communication and information technologies. The result is said to be the collapse of traditional industries such as manufacturing and the stable employment that they have latterly come to symbolise. The rise of new service industries, by contrast, is characterised by temporary and insecure employment. 'There are no jobs for life' is, by now, a well-worn cliché in most parts of the world.
It is interesting, however, that the radical left and the trades union movement have, in their own ways contributed to the public perception that most new jobs are low paid temporary and poor quality. From discussions of 'McJobs' to debates over call centres there is a view that all new jobs are 'crap jobs'. The past evokes a nostalgia for regular, full-time, male employment in unionised workplaces paying the family wage. The contemporary labour market is imbued with a sense of fragmentation, deregulation, polarisation and powerlessness.
I present statistical evidence in the following tables from Europe and North America which show, contrary to public perception and much policy commentary, that long-term employment is increasing at a dramatic rate in many parts of the world. What makes the rise in long-term employment all the more significant is that it occurs in the face of employment expansion. Normally increases in total employment bring in new recruits who lower the average job tenure in the workforce, but in all cases the rise in long-term employment takes place alongside total job gains.
Table 1 Long-term Employment in Australia, the United States and the European Union from the early 1990s to 2002
Tot Emp: Refers to total employment
Employment Growth: Refers to total employment growth
LTE: Refers to Long-term employment, defined as those with their current employer for 10 years or more
LTE Growth: refers to the expansion of the long-term workforce
RLTE: refers to the rate of long-term employment
Sources: Australian Labour Force Survey, Bureau of Labour Statistics America, EUROSTAT
Table 1 shows two important trends. Firstly employment expansion in Australia is impressive by international standards with an 18.4% increase in the workforce compared to 14.9% in the USA, and 8.7% in Europe during this period. Despite the influx of new recruits into the workforce the rise in long- service employment has increased both absolutely and relatively. Thus, while the total workforce expanded by 18.4%, the long-term workforce expanded by 27.1%. The increase in Australia, however, rises from a significantly lower starting point so that the present rate of long-term employment is 24% compared to the EU with some 40.1% of the workforce employed long-term. At first glance it might appear that the Australian experience is nearer the America model than Europe's, but this may be misleading. It is arguable that the American figures are depressed because some services sectors have very high turnover rates. It is interesting that in the very large manufacturing sector in America the rate of long-term employment is 36.3% compared to a national average of 28.5%.
The explanation for the rise of long-term employment in Australia is better explained by including gender into the analysis. In table 2 the total and long-term employment changes are considered in terms of the male and female experiences.
Table 2 Total and long-term employment change for men and women in Australia between 1990 and 2002
In Australia and Europe for every three additional jobs, two are filled by women. Thus the female workforce in Australia has expanded by 29.8% but the long-term workforce among women has increased by 75.5%. Such impressive headlines should not distract from the fact the rate of long-term employment of women in Australia in the early 1990s at 15.1% was low by international standards, in comparison to America (27.9%) and Europe (32.2%). Even with this dramatic expansion of the long-term women's workforce there is a long way to go to catch up with American and European women.
In pursuing the short-termism of casualisation it might appear as if industry associations, business consultants and government representatives in Australia are advancing a reform strategy that runs contrary to trends across the advanced economies. Australian rates of long-term employment, although increasing, are significantly lower than the more advanced or innovative economies of North America and Europe. Moreover, labour market reforms in countries that have been associated with temporary employment, such as Spain, are now decisively shifting in favour or permanent employment. So much so that the rate of long-term employment in Spain is now 38.7%.
The pursuit of casualisation might therefore be understood, not as an economic necessity deriving from global competition, but, ideologically, as the promotion of a flexibility that challenges the capacity of unions to bargain across the whole economy. In this way it serves a similar function to other threats to trades union power deployed elsewhere. In the United States, for instance, research has shown that employers hype up their plans for relocating to cheap labour countries in the run up to wage contract negotiation. If casualisation is perceived in this ideological sense there is an important corrective offered in stressing the 'institutional capacity' and bargaining strength of labour that is systematically devalued by an uncritical acceptance of the flexibility rhetoric.
Employers across the globe, contrary to policy rhetoric and government prescription, increasingly prioritise the retention of labour, whose skills and competence are ever more necessary to the successful functioning of competitive companies It is important that labour negotiators and researchers bear in mind the basic economic premise that capital needs labour. The labour market is not 'a buyers market'. Unemployment can fall and job retention can increase so the bargaining environment alters and labour market conditions can shift in favour of labour
In this respect labour negotiators must be wary of colluding in the representation of powerlessness within the labour market. There are real concerns raised by casualisation in particular sectors, but these should not be overgeneralised to engender a pessimism and anxiety which sustain the broad public perception of insecurity and precariousness. In particular, to undervalue the rise of women's participation in the workforce as merely part-time, temporary work is to commit a significant error of judgement. The representation of all forms of 'non-standard' employment as less important than 'real jobs', traditionally occupied by full-time, male workers, could be one of the greatest own goals that the union movement could score in the contemporary transformation of the labour market.
Kevin Doogan is the Jean Monnet Professor of European Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, UK.
|Search All Issues | Latest Issue | Previous Issues | Print Latest Issue|
© 1999-2002 Workers Online