Monday, August 09, 2004

Casual employment – the missing ingredient

The rather erratic Ross Gittins got it mostly right recently, in noting that the explosion in casual employment was not because it was cheap for employers – at least not in a direct sense.

Missing from Gittins’ analysis though, was a convincing explanation of just how employers can so assuredly rely on an ever-ready pool of casual employees – particularly in these times of supposed low unemployment and generous social security. It’s what I call the “shop full of melting ice cream” effect: casual employment can only suit employers’ interests if the ranks of just-in-time employees are (i) oblivious to their own bargaining power, and/or (ii) have more to lose than the employer, should they withhold their labour. A third possibility, in some industries at least, is that there simply no analogy with melting ice cream – the employer’s business is thin or imperishable enough to ride out any employee tactical bluff.

One observation that can be made with some certainty is that Australia’s abundant supply of casual employees proves subsistence-level (at best) “workfare” is well-entrenched in this country. Punitive effective marginal tax rates (up to 87 cents in the dollar for those on the dole*) clearly do not discourage the formation of a healthy-sized (for employers) pool of just-in-time workers whose net income will never much exceed the social security “floor” amount. Little Aussie battlers with a ferocious aversion to being termed dolebludgers? Possibly – but more likely just plain folk too busy treading water to ever see the nearby shallow end. The phrase “working poor” covers too wide a variety of circumstances to have much current use; a clearer statistic is that St Vincent de Paul Society welfare aid to those in work (full-time, part-time or casual, but presumably mostly the latter two) has expanded approximately ten-fold since the late 1990s.

A corollary observation is that the interface between casual employment and unemployment is poorly understood. I say this as a near-total outsider to the area, but I take the Right’s (including Labor’s) regular tub-thumping on the issue of “welfare reform” as irrefutable evidence of ground-up ignorance on the topic. This ill-understood interface matters in both directions – true unemployment is consequently grievously underestimated, and a rapidly-growing permafringe-dweller class is left to its own devices, as far as policy-making goes (if a person from this class is not on the dole or other “full-time” welfare payment, then they are not statistically anything – poverty, even if absolute and life-long, is not sui generis as a matter of policy concern).

My personal suggested explanation for the widespread pliability and keenness of the impoverished casual-worker army is the recrudescence of servility, after a century’s dormancy. Especially for GenX, the incentive to believe in one’s own relative inferiority is powerfully mandated. With falling home-ownership rates, the long-term (private) renter’s mindset seems to have cross-pollinated into a sense of career fatalism – any old job will do, because it has to.

Whether I’m right or wrong here, the last decade’s explosion in casual employment appears certain to continue – and when it finally stops, a second Industrial Revolution will have been wrought. Ironically for GenX, the modern use of Luddite (= technophobe) couldn’t be further from useful avail.

Casualisation, the second great wave of workplace de-humanisation, is profoundly machinery-friendly. Indeed, the most technologically-skilled generation ever has been uniquely able (and required) to bring to the factory (/call-centre, /kitchen, /tutorial room, etc) floor not brooding alienation, but genuine, zero-bargaining-power servility.

* The 87 cents in the dollar effective rate kicks in at a very modest (and non-indexed) employment income of $142 per fortnight, or more. It comprises an allowance reduction of 70 cents in the dollar, plus tax (assuming a total income between $6,001 – $21,600).

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