It's About Decent Jobs

by David Bliss. 

In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected US President on the back of one of an infamous political quote, “It’s the economy, stupid”.  It was the bedrock of his Presidential campaign during a recession and weaponised to unseat George H. W. Bush, the last US President to serve just one term [see ya Donald!].  Amidst our first recession almost thirty years later, “It’s the jobs, stupid” must be our motto.  But not just any jobs.  They must be decent, dignified and fairly paid jobs.

The Reserve Bank of Australia recently found that almost 700,000 jobs were saved this year by JobKeeper, a federal government policy which grew from the Retail Industry Rescue Package, jointly proposed by the SDA and ARA when consumer spending collapsed in early March.  It demonstrates the SDA is fully committed to and effective in defending jobs in our industry during this challenging time.

As we rebuild the industry in a post-pandemic economy, serious questions will emerge as to viability of many bricks and mortar retailers, especially those which have failed to adapt to the COVID-19 super-charged switch to online retailing.  Those retailers which survive and thrive will do so because they adapt; and for workers these changes could be either good or poor.  In the coming months we must win the policy battle on three inter-related issues, lest employers and neo-conservatives exploit the current economic uncertainty to attack working conditions and further diminish job security.

Do we need so many casual jobs?

Australia abandoned permanent work for entry-level jobs a long time ago.  Today, Australia has the second-highest share of casual jobs in the OECD (25%) and third-highest share of part-time jobs.[1] This is exacerbated for low-paid, award-reliant work.  Employers argue that business and the economy need the flexibility of casual and part-time work to be efficient, to compete, to be nimble and to provide service when required by the consumer. They also argue that casual and part-time work are a preference or matter of “choice” for workers.  The reality is that casual work is more commonly the choice of the employer, and not the worker. And once a worker is engaged as a casual, they often assume regular and predictable working hours, proving that the casual status is a fiction and not a genuine operational requirement of the business.

Unfortunately, I suspect the pandemic will provide employers plenty of camouflage to preserve these unfair arrangements, which ideally suit businesses but continue exploit vulnerable classes of workers.  However, the pandemic also offers workers the opportunity to change the conversation and demand more job security.  Casual conversion clauses in Awards and Enterprise Agreements have provided workers with a pathway to permanency. But these arrangements are only used sporadically, they depend on individual confidence and many workers remain unaware of their rights.  In the coming years we must redouble our efforts to make more regular and widespread use of these rights, enforce NES entitlements for those workers who are casual in name only to encourage employers to stop exploiting their casual workforce and also strengthen the regulatory framework to discourage employers from overusing casual employment.  There’s plenty to do!

Do we need to sacrifice wages and conditions?

The answer is a resounding “no”.  After decades of award reviews, so-called “modernisation” and ceaseless attacks on minimum conditions, we must be ready the next wave of employer whimpering about wages and conditions.  The pandemic will be their Trojan Horse.  The inconvenient truth for employers is that during the good times, they raked in booming profits but shared only modest wage increases.  So, during the tough times, workers are entitled to argue that fair and reasonable increases continue.  But, as margins tighten and profits are squeezed, we can expect employers to demand miniscule increases or even wage freezes.  This pretense will be breathtaking. 

We must always remember and enthusiastically argue that wage increases for low-paid and vulnerable workers are good for the economy because all their earnings are pumped back into local businesses and jobs.  Low paid workers simply don’t earn enough to stuff the spare earnings into a Cayman Islands account! The earnings that are sucked up into corporate profits and distributed to wealthy shareholders are not as efficiently distributed back into the economy.  It’s simple.  Wage increases for workers are good for the nation and good for the retailers, fast food operators and warehouses, which see the money return in the form of consumer spending.

Can we afford this?

We must debunk the myth that, without the pandemic we would not be in recession.  The fact is that our economy was fragile and the Government had failed to rein in debt before this year.  Despite their bogus claims of being the better economic managers, net debt had doubled during the current Government’s term of office.[2]  There were also many economic indicators before the pandemic that undercut the Treasurer’s premature budget “back in black” claims in 2019, including GDP growth was weaker than anticipated and consumer confidence deteriorated during the previous year.  This means we are headed for uncertain times, but the pandemic is not entirely to blame and much of the uncertainty was caused by poor economic leadership from the Morrison Government before the pandemic hit.

In the coming months, we will all be told that we are “all in this together” and that we will need make sacrifices. The reality is we must take a look at who is making the sacrifices.  The Australian share market has already almost retuned to pre-pandemic levels, the wealth of billionaires has surged[3] and the wealth gap has widened with low paid workers and women bearing the brunt of pandemic related slowdown and slowdown.

As we emerge from our pandemic aggravated recession, we must remember that our economic foundations remain fundamentally unfair and together we must fight for fair and decent jobs.  They are not only affordable, but they will produce better outcomes for our economic recovery and our society at large.

 

[1] Faces of Unemployment, ACOSS, April 2020, p 17.

[2] FactCheck: has Australia’s net debt doubled under the current government? The Conversation, 6 August 2018.

[3] Billionaires' wealth rises to $10.2 trillion amid Covid crisis, The Guardian, 7 October 2020

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