Workers across Australia are working longer hours, for less pay and with more job insecurity. These are the findings of a report released on October 29 and prepared by the Workplace Research Centre at the University of Sydney.
Now in its second year, Working Lives: Australians at Work is a compilation of surveys and interviews with 8000 people on their attitudes to work (management, hours of work, awards and unions) and living standards. It shines a light on the real conditions faced by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's "working families" and details reforms urgently needed to make their lives better.
A primary concern of the study is the number of hours being worked. "Long hours of work remain a stubborn feature of Australian working life", the report states. "Full-time employees are working an average of 44 hours per week and 29 per cent would like to reduce their hours."
Federal employment minister Julia Gillard released the government's National Employment Standards in June (to take effect only in 2010). While they mandate a maximum 38-hour work week, they also require workers to work "reasonable additional hours".
For the average full-time worker, this would mean an additional six hours a week — almost a full extra day. Working Lives says that many of those hours are unpaid.
"In Australia, the main way of regulating working time has been to provide penalty rates for over time or working at certain hours", Working Lives states. However, the payment of overtime penalty rates has been used by many workers as a means of topping up their otherwise insufficient wages. Workers are forced to work long hours, in many cases, just to make ends meet.
The report notes that since the 1990s, with the introduction of enterprise bargaining under the Keating Labor government, "many employers used this process to remove penalty rates and other working time conditions. Working time arrangements were one of the most popular targets for employers in agreement negotiations."
Penalties were incorporated into an annualised salary, or traded away, but the long hours remained. "There is currently no enforceable working time policy that protects Australian employees from their current long hours of work", the report states. "Average full-time actual hours reached beyond 40 hours per week in the early 1990s, and have since remained at these higher levels."
Working Lives identifies industrial awards (arbitrated minimum standards of wages and conditions applying to different industries) as being the only practical way of limiting hours of work.
"Awards are the last place where potential for some working time regulation exists", the report states. It goes on to note that the Labor government intends to strip award protection from all workers earning $100,000 or more a year when the new industrial relations system is introduced in 2010.
"Of the high earners who will no longer come under award arrangements, 52 per cent are working 50 hours or more per week and 63 per cent of those who don't have an applicable award are working the same hours. Many of these extra hours are unpaid."
While a minority of workers have their wages and conditions fully determined by awards, the report documents that more than half the work force report "awards play a role" in shaping these. "While supporting bargaining activity at the workplace level is important, it needs to be reinforced by other initiatives", the report states, adding that maintaining awards "will be central" to this.
But, as Working Lives notes, the federal government is continuing John Howard's anti-worker laws by stripping awards to 10 allowable matters.
Stripping awards and designing the new IR system around negotiation at the enterprise level shifts power away from workers to the boss.
The Rudd Labor government also intends to retain many of the legal limits on what unions may do to defend their members' rights, according to Working Lives. "The capacity for industrial action to be taken on a multi-employer basis, either by collective bargaining or arbitration, is all but prohibited", it says.
It notes that only around 20% of workers are unionised. It cites three reasons for this low figure: "industrial change favouring sectors with low union densities; legislative change that has reduced union influence in industrial relations; and stalled change by union organisations in response to new challenges".
However, Working Lives notes that the level of support for unions is almost as high in Australia as in Sweden, where close to 80% of the work force is unionised.
As a result, the report says that around 10% of the work force are "'unrepresented': positively disposed towards unions, yet not currently union members; seeking collective protection, but presently isolated as individual employees". This 1 million "unrepresented" workers is a central challenge for the unions trying to defend workers' rights under a Labor government.
Working Lives indicates that the majority of unionists are 45-years-old and older, and from an English-speaking background. "Being younger, working in non-union workplaces and coming from a NESB [non-English speaking] background are three important social characteristics" of "unrepresented" workers, the report states.
It also reflects on the decline of unions in the workplace under the 1980s Prices and Incomes Accord, which has not been won back. "If all those unrepresented workers joined a union tomorrow, union density would return to levels not seen since the 1990s", the report notes.
Lower wages, higher debts
Working Lives warns that debt-laden workers and an under-unionised work force will increase workers' insecurity. The global economic crisis, the possibility of a recession and Labor's refusal to remove restrictions on unions' rights to organise contribute to the report's bleak picture of economic uncertainty.
"Since 2007, there has been an increase in the proportion of workers who say they are finding it difficult to get by or who are just coping on their total household income (52 per cent in 2007 versus 56 per cent in 2008)... Many households rely on debt such as mortgages and credit cards to maintain their standard of living: one in five workers report being unable to pay debts on time.
"As economic uncertainty appears set to deepen it is clear that a significant proportion of workers are under pressure, and a higher proportion is just coping to get by. It is impossible to ignore how work and the household are intertwined and the consequences for this on people's living standards — not just in terms of how much money they have to spend but also the pressures they feel at work to achieve financial goals."
Working Lives sounds a warning to those who believe that working people have the right to a decent wage and reasonable hours of work that the struggle to rebuild a militant union movement is an urgent one.