Buoyant, fully-employed economy a false image
By Victor Quirk
Since the late 1980s, Australian workers have been increasingly forced into temporary and casual jobs, in which the number of hours of paid employment varies from day to day and week to week, making the Australian labour market highly casualised by OECD standards.
In 1986, the Commonwealth Bureau of Labour Market Research warned that this change in the structure of the labour market meant that counting people as "employed" when they did one hour of work, which is how it is still done, would increasingly understate the real level of unemployment.
This is because a person who wants to work a 35-hour week every week, but only averages five hours of work, is counted as "employed" rather than 30 hours per week "unemployed". Additionally, the splitting of a permanent job into two casual jobs counts as having created a "new job", even if these add up to fewer hours of employment than the job they replace.
If a person works for one week for 35 hours, they are said to have had a "full-time job", even if they are unemployed for the next 51 weeks. Both major parties have exploited public ignorance of these anomalies to allow them to use unemployment as an economic lever while avoiding the electoral backlash for doing so.
A more accurate hours-based Labour Force Survey would ask respondents how many hours they were employed in a given week, and how many hours they would have preferred. Some may express a desire to work fewer hours, and some to work more, producing a net figure indicating the extent to which the available labour force was not being utilised.
Recognising the significance of this issue, and following work by the Newcastle-based Centre of Full Employment and Equity to develop and promote such hours-based measures, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has undertaken annual hours-based surveys for several years.
Earlier this month the ABS published the results of one conducted in September 2006. By this measure, over nine per cent of the willing labour force is not employed.
Given the depth of economic insecurity that this creates in the community, the lack of industrial disputation, despite the worst attack on workers rights in 70 years, is nothing to wonder at. Nor are skill shortages due to full employment. They actually arise because the public sector no longer produces the tradespeople it once did when it was a major employer of apprentices.
Cuts to public education mean we do not produce the other professionals our nation needs. Australia's image of economic buoyancy rests on unprecedented levels of private debt, ultimately driven by the drain on the finances of households and firms caused by the Commonwealth sucking billions out of circulation with every budget surplus, instead of investing in public infrastructure, employment and skills.
Fuelling debt and unemployment this way creates the polarisation of wealth and power that benefits the campaign donors and other gatekeepers to political power. The use of discredited "persons-based" measures of unemployment ensures the public remain ignorant of its continuing role in their disempowerment. The image of a buoyant, fully employed economy is false.
-Victor Quirk is a PhD student and research assistant at the University of Newcastle Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE).