Insecurity rises as more jobs go

March 2, 2012
Issue 
The Australian Bureau of Statistics says underemployment has risen since 2007.

There is a growing disconnect between the official rosy picture of the Australian economy and mounting public anxiety about job insecurity.

The latest official unemployment rate (January 2012) was steady at 5.2% and Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson insists there is no reason to worry. Australians, he said, should shake off their misplaced “boom with gloom” attitude.

Parkinson told a Senate estimates hearing: “The whole mindset is a bit overdone, it’s almost as if most Australians think we live in Greece.

“We don’t, we actually have an incredibly bright future ahead of us … the opportunities we have in front of us are like we have never seen before.”

But the headline unemployment rate hides the actual job situation. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has reported rises in underemployment and the numbers of discouraged job seekers since 2007.

ABS estimated that late last year there were 873,500 underemployed workers — that is, part-time workers who want more hours of work or full-time workers forced to work less hours. This is in addition to the 627,500 unemployed. Since November 2007, 191,400 more Australian workers became underemployed.

The number of discouraged jobseekers — people who want to work and are available to work but are no longer actively looking for work because they believe they will not find a job — has also risen since 2007. The ABS estimated there were 102,100 discouraged jobseekers by September 2010.

Cruel joke

An Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) report, Insecure Work, Anxious Lives: The Growing Crisis of Insecure Work in Australia, found that “casual jobs, short term contracts and other insecure forms of work are on the rise and secure jobs are getting harder and harder to find”.

It said: “Only around 60% of workers are in full or part-time ongoing employment.

“More than 4 million workers are engaged as casuals, on short-term contracts, in labour hire, or as independent contractors.”

The sum of unemployed, underemployed and discouraged jobseekers is more than 1.6 million.

From their point of view, and from the standpoint of millions of workers with insecure jobs and very high household debt, Parkinson’s words are a cruel joke.

This year, all the big banks are shedding jobs, as are the car making giants Holden and Toyota, aluminium maker Alcoa and the communications giant Telstra. On top of that, federal and state governments are destroying jobs in a bid to deliver surplus budgets and pay for big business tax cuts.

On February 29, big NSW construction company the Reed Group announced it was in trouble.

Brian Parker, the NSW secretary of the building division of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU), warned a meeting of Unions NSW on March 1 that if Reed collapsed, the ripple effect could cost up to 10,000 jobs.

Job shedding by bigger companies makes the news, but job losses in small and medium sized businesses are not often reported.

The ABS says about half of all Australian workers are employed by small businesses that employ 20 or fewer people.

A report by business analysts Dun & Bradstreet said small business bankruptcies jumped 48% over the past 12 months. Small business start-ups fell by 95% over the same period. Small business failures among firms with less than five employees grew 57% over the year.

Public subsidies

Billionaire Gerry Harvey, the chairperson of the Harvey Norman retail chain, appealed to the public to start spending up again to avoid more businesses bankruptcies and job losses.

If we listen to Harvey, ordinary people should just go on a shopping spree and get deeper into debt to revive the economy. Other big capitalists tell us to have faith that the billions of dollars of profits now being made by the big mining companies and the banks will trickle down to us.

The Gillard Labor government assures us that its subsidies to big car companies and its promised company tax cuts will help save jobs. But will they?

Governments have spent billions of dollars to subsidise big steel making companies and car companies in the name of saving jobs. These companies have taken the money, made huge profits, paid obscene amounts to their CEOs and gone on to shed more than 30,000 jobs in the steel industry and thousands more in car manufacturing since the 1970s.

Public subsidies to protect the profits of big corporations won’t guarantee jobs. If big profits meant job security, Australia’s big four banks should not be embarking on a new wave of sackings. Last year, they reported a combined profit of $25.2 billion.

ACTU president Ged Kearney recently noted that “the combined salaries of the four major banks’ CEOs totalled $28.6 million. This, along with their massive profits, makes it impossible to feel any sympathy for their complaints about their financial circumstances.

“At the same time, the big four banks last year slashed 3300 jobs and already in the first month of this year, Westpac and ANZ have announced plans to shed another 730 jobs between them.”

On February 12, Finance Sector Union national secretary Leon Carter said 2000 banking sector jobs had gone this year. He said: “If this pace continues, we stand to lose 10,000 jobs over the next 18 months.”

An alternative

Most of Australia’s trade union leaders back the Labor government’s argument that jobs can be saved through more corporate subsidies and more corporate tax cuts. But one trade union leader has broken from the pack and is arguing for a different course.

In his February 18 interview with Green Left Weekly, Geelong Trades and Labor Council secretary Tim Gooden said: “People say it’s a private world, a free market — that’s crap. All the risk has been socialised, all the profits are privatised.

“In reality, society is pretty much paying for these companies anyway. If the corporate system can’t maintain them, then the public system should take them over…

“If an industry became redundant, workers should be retrained on full pay into the new industry, not thrown on the scrapheap like we see today.

“Nationalisation would also be cheaper — if we aren’t paying business board members millions to suck on cigars, the costs would be lower. And any funds raised are for public, not private, use.

“Importantly, we would be able to plan any scale down of an industry that society decides is redundant or harmful. We could put the resources and skills into industries we want.”

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