A job for life is hard labour for a modern economy
The ACTU on October 24 announced an inquiry into insecure employment. It has identified 40 per cent of Australian workers as being engaged in one of four categories of insecure employment: independent contracting; labour hire; fixed-term employment; and casual employment.
The campaign's banner is "Secure Jobs. Better Future". Its objective is an employment nirvana where almost everyone is a permanent employee. The employees will enjoy the fruits of permanent employment, a suite of union-endorsed conditions and entitlements. The workers will then worship the ACTU for creating a workers' paradise in Australia.
The publicity to date has featured the usual horror cameos of worker exploitation. Such exploitation has occurred under all labour market manifestations. It is wrong under any circumstance and labour market regulation should always facilitate its punishment and eradication.
The national inquiry will involve public hearings by a panel chaired by former ALP minister Brian Howe. A former senior presidential member of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, Paul Munro, will be deputy chairman.
The ACTU introduced the insecure employment concept in September. This coincided with the release of the results of a survey of union members called the Australian Working Census 2011.
Union sources describe the campaign as unprecedented. Employers and business are urged to participate to demonstrate the inquiry's independence. This pleading suggests it may be legitimate to question the degree of independence of the whole exercise.
The chairman said he would approach the investigation with an open mind. He said he had a longstanding concern about how the changing nature of work was affecting the economy and society. Howe added the sweeping statement: "If the theme of the post-war years was all about security, now it's all about risk."
This gives an indication of where the inquiry is headed.
What chance is there that the initiative will conclude that casual, contract and labour hire employment are an intrinsic characteristic of a modern labour market that assists Australian firms compete in a connected and dynamic world economy?
The chairman even expanded on these sentiments in reassuring us that the inquiry would approach its task with an open mind. He observed: "As work becomes more insecure, it not only puts pressure on the mortgage and the household finances if people can't get decent paid work, but it is putting a terrible strain on their family lives and their communities."
What chance is there of the inquiry adopting a submission that many Australians prefer casual, contract, fixed-term and labour-hire employment? Will the inquiry entertain a view that the labour market has changed markedly from the 1970s and that the 24/7 world of today demands labour market flexibility? Rigid labour rules telling people how they must work end in catastrophe. Just cast a glance towards the rigid labour markets of Europe for an international model of what not to do.
I believe the ACTU campaign misreads the mindset of working-age Australians and the economic imperatives of 2011.
This is not surprising as trade union membership has fallen to a mere 14 per cent of the private-sector workforce. The ACTU and unions increasingly reflect the views of this declining segment of our society. Of the 41,000 respondents to the Working Australia Census 2011, 98.1 per cent or 91.8 per cent, depending on which section of the census report you rely on, were union members. This is not a representative sample of Australians.
Many Australians enjoy the independence and freedom of contracting and labour hire. It affords them control over their own destiny. It allows them the opportunity to build a business and benefit directly from their skills and knowledge. They place a premium on a satisfactory balance between work and private life objectives. Careers are often pursued jointly with partners to maximise family and job potential.
Younger people are not as turned on by stability, certainty and belonging as their parents. They will typically change jobs frequently throughout their careers. The idea of working for a long term with a single employer is the exception. The sense of belonging to a collective such as a union is anathema to many.
Many businesses have to deal with peaks, troughs and seasonal variations in operating conditions. The management of these changing conditions through a permanent workforce is often untenable. Casual employment enables many businesses to cope. Also, casual employment offers thousands of young people an entry path to permanent employment.
It is wrong to claim as the ACTU does: "All the convenience goes to bosses and all the stress and uncertainty associated with casual work goes to employees."
The spirit of enterprise and having a go has been beneficial to Australia. It has been fundamental to the development of industries that underpin our prosperity.
To impose union-devised restraints on that spirit will weaken our prospects in this competitive world.
The ACTU should recognise that many Australians value choice, freedom, independence, individuality and having a go. They accept the risks of relying on reward directly linked to effort.
The ACTU has misread many working Australians today. Its campaign is bound to fail.