Australia is moving towards a low wage economy with high rates of casualisation. Young workers are bearing the brunt of the hardship this is causing. While relatively secure and well paid jobs are being lost in manufacturing and the public sector, they are largely being replaced with low waged, insecure jobs in the service sector.
Casualisation has been on the increase in Australia for the last 30 years. The latest figures estimate that about 40% of the workforce is engaged in insecure work.
Casual work suits employers as it is easier to sack people and cut their shifts at short notice. Employees are told it’s all about workplace ‘flexibility’ but given the unequal relationship that exists between workers and bosses, usually that flexibility is very one sided.
Casualisation also helps employers to drive down wages as it is more difficult for workers to organise in unions and bargain collectively when they have irregular work. We have seen a trend in Australia where side by side with a rise in casualisation we have also seen the decline of real wages.
The issues of low pay and job insecurity are major problems facing many families. Not only does insecure work have an immediate impact on people’s financial situation, it also puts people under extreme amounts of stress.
For young workers the situation is even worse. In industries dominated by young workers like accommodation and food services, around 65% of employees are casual. Unemployment rates for young people are also on the rise. Some regions have nearly 20% of young people out of work – that’s more than double the national adult jobless rate.
If that wasn’t all bad enough there is a push from business groups to abolish penalty rates. Penalty rates were fought for in order to compensate people for working irregular and anti-social hours. Often casual and young workers rely on the higher pay rates in order to survive.
For example cutting penalty rates would mean that a shop assistant is about $4500 worse off a year. Business groups want to see penalty rates cut (ie wages slashed) in order to increase their profit margins. There is no evidence to suggest that slashing people’s wages leads to more employment as some of them claim.
The best way for workers to defend themselves from these attacks on their rights and conditions is to be organised in trade unions. The problem is that many workers, especially young workers, don’t see the value of unions. While in the past unions were seen as fighting for things, today they can often be seen collaborating with employers.
Hardly ever is a fight put up to stop sackings, casualisation or to fight for over decet pay. In many cases some unions oversee pay cuts and the destruction of conditions, all in the name of assuring ‘profitablity’. With a record like this you can understand why young people might be skeptical!
There is a desperate need to rebuild the trade unions along fighting lines. UNITE, the union for fast food and retail workers in Victoria, is one attempt to try and turn things around by making unions attractive to young people again.
Since its beginnings in 2006 UNITE has had some modest successes. Upwards of $500,000 of unpaid wages has been recovered directly and wages and conditions have been improved in a whole number of workplaces. Far from accepting low pay and casualisation, UNITE is fighting for a living wage and proper job secuity.
These are the basic ideas that need to be reintroduced into the trade union movement if we are to stop the shift towards a low wage economy. They stem from a view of the world that puts the interests of workers before the interests of big businesses and the profit driven system.
By Kat Galea