Ged Kearney

President of the ACTU

Photograph by Arsineh Houspian.  +(61) 401 320 173.  arsineh@arsineh.comI am very pleased to speak here this evening with Brian Howe, who played such a significant role as chair of the Independent Inquiry into Insecure Work in Australia, which issued its report, Lives on Hold: Unlocking the Potential of Australia’s Workforce, in 2012. The Inquiry was commissioned by the ACTU because of our growing concern about the impact of casualisation and contracting in the workforce, undermining wages and working conditions.

You can’t talk about the future of work without talking about the present situation for so many Australians in insecure work. The Independent Inquiry into Insecure Work gave us the evidence we needed to start talking about insecure work in a really informed way.

In 2010 when I was travelling around the country speaking to workers about the Federal Election I heard the stories of so many workers who were in the midst of insecure work. These workers were from every state and every industry, from the public and the private sector.

We knew that insecure work was a growing problem in Australian society, but the inquiry showed us just how widespread it was. The Inquiry held hearings all around the country and took hundreds of submissions from workers, employers, unions and researchers – in fact they received over 550 submissions.

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‘DC Rally Supporting WI Workers 22’ by SEIU,
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Again and again, the Inquiry heard stories from workers who, because of the precarious nature of their employment:

□  Were unable to plan ahead or make time to be with their families

□  Find it impossible to get a car loan or a home loan

□  Were too afraid to speak out at work about issues like health and safety.

And the Inquiry pinpointed exactly how insecure work is growing:

□  Casual employment has been transformed and entrenched in our economy as a tool to minimise costs rather than to deal with temporary or intermittent variations in the patterns of work. Over half of all casuals are “permanent casuals” who have been employed in their current job for over a year, and over 15% of casuals have been in their job for more than five years.

□  Fixed-term employment is being used heavily by employers to avoid the costs associated with standard employment conditions like leave and the notice of termination – particularly in the public sector. Just think of the number of teachers employed today on rolling fixed-term contracts.

□  The growth of the “workforce management industry” and the use of labour hire have created new avenues for cutting costs and transforming permanent jobs into casual positions.

□  Independent contracting is being misused to mask employment relationships.

□  ABS data suggests that around 40% of independent contractors have no authority over their own work, and sham contracting is far too common in some industries such as construction.

□  Insecure work is an issue that permeates throughout the whole economy – but has the starkest impact on the people who can afford it least.

□ Women whose caring needs force them into insecure work because they have no real choice;

□  Migrant workers who experience some of the worst forms of exploitation;

□  Older men who’ve lost their permanent jobs and find themselves stuck in insecure work; and

□  Young people at the beginning of their working lives who are trying to break out of insecure work and start a career.

This new workforce did not happen by accident; it happened because of the actions of economically and politically powerful people and institutions that set out to make this happen. It was engineered by employers and business people who took advantage of the changes. People made it.

We must accept that job insecurity is the consequence of an economy, driven by profit at all cost, that used workplace reforms to take advantage of those who can least afford it.

The great reformers of the Hawke/Keating era and the Kelty Accord did to some extent foresee the probable  impact on workers associated with the liberalisation of the market and consciously implemented a social safety net including Medicare, Superannuation and a Skills agenda.

But I would contend that, while there was consideration given to the possible outcomes of the reforms, there was a failure fully to anticipate the breadth of the safety net measures that were truly needed to avoid the situation so many Australian workers now find themselves in.

For example a portable entitlements scheme would have been a practical approach to helping people deal with the peaks and troughs of insecure, unpredictable work and incomes.

If there had been a greater, prolonged effort, if there had not been the election of a conservative government and if they had not been in power so long, we would, perhaps, have had no need for the fights we are now having.

The Howard Government’s total failure to invest and expand the social policy aspects of the 1980s’ reforms,  their weakening the safety net along with the implementation of the dangerous WorkChoices  industrial relations laws, provided all that employers needed to expand casualisation, sham contracting and other forms of insecure work.

This process was part of a broader project of staunch neoliberalism and free market ideology.

The free trade, deregulation and profit-driven agenda was part of a broader social shift during the early 1990s that resulted in a failure on multiple levels. It was a failure of government, of business and also of civil society, including unions.

I don’t think society as a whole failed to notice the shift, to notice that more and more of their friends and colleagues were experiences shifts in work; and yet they failed to speak up.

It was people, employers and business people, who took advantage of changes to make insecure work. That was true, but I’m here to tell you that it’s other people, people like those in this room and a whole lot more, joining together that will unmake it. We can conquer this.

It has been nearly three decades since the drastic reforms of the 1980s. We have seen successive governments be drawn in by the idea that profit is king and the road to a strong economy and prosperous community comes from deregulation.

It has been three decades of offshoring, of the myth that productivity comes while workers are fearful, and most of all, it has been three decades of growing insecurity for the workers of Australia. This project has run its course and it has failed.

The lives of insecure workers who live with less confidence and opportunity than many of their fellow Australians stand as proof of that failure. They are the ones who can’t plan ahead to be with their family or friends, to take their children to weekend sport or to make investments on things like a house or a car.  They are the ones who cannot rely on the benefits that generations of union members have won for most of us.

It’s clear that doing nothing and allowing the current situation to remain will only lead to more of the same; more employers getting rid of workers before they are obliged to provide permanent employment; more workers having to spend nights and early mornings making phone calls to see if they’ve been given a shift; more workers being bounced from one short term work placement to another, never feeling comfortable, always acting as a stop-gap; more Australians being made to feel disposable and not valued, living a half-life, not a full one.

I want to share with you one particular story from the Inquiry – it’s the story of Mrs Fan, a textile worker in Sydney. Mrs Fan came to Australia eight years ago from Vietnam. She is an older woman, and struggled to get any work in a factory as a result of her age. So Mrs Fan became an outworker, making dresses at home that might sell in retail outlets for between $700 and $1,000.

There were at least three middle-men in the production supply chain who all took their cut before Mrs Fan got paid, leaving her earning piece rates as low as $7 per dress. When Mrs Fan’s union – the TCFUA – found her they sat down with the boss and negotiated a better contract, which led to her being paid $13 per garment.

But even this is well below the Award rate that workers in factory-based production would be being paid as a minimum.

Sometimes, the principal contractor or one of their suppliers might decide to hurry up an order, leaving Mrs Fan with little time to complete her work. When this happened, Mrs Fan would be forced to work overnight to get the job done. So the Inquiry asked her – how do you stay aware all night when you have to work overnight? Coffee? Drugs? Mrs Fan answered: “I have no choice. Fear keeps me awake.”

A discussion of the future of work in this country needs to be part of a greater conversation of what role work should play in the makeup of our society. We cannot have a sustainable, cohesive, informed and involved society when people are afraid because of insecure work.

The need for an end to insecure work is not about seeking something that is not deserved, it’s simply about opportunity. It’s about every one of us getting a chance to fulfil our potential. That’s not a lot to ask.

In July 2013 the ACTU will launch the Charter for Secure Jobs and a Better Life. This will be a document that sets out our central proposition, that the most important part of our society can’t be profit at any cost and it can’t be an IR system where short-term employees and fixed-term workers bear all the risk, and the cost of a drop in sales and orders, or a cash-flow problem.

This casualisation of the workforce, the abuse of fixed-term contracts and the misuse of independent contractors has, at its heart, been about disempowering workers and undermining their ability to organise.

We need to empower these people again, to organise them. We need to argue for a society where workers are secure at work, where they feel safe to speak up and join a union, where they are given the opportunity by employers to take the time to care.

We need to ensure the protections of work-life balance remain intact, protections like penalty rates, overtime and leave entitlements.

We need to start a discussion about the role of government when the market fails, about how a truly strong government has at its heart a well-resourced public service that allows for universal access, delivery according to need, services free at the point of use, and services delivered for the public good rather than for profit.

We must accept a very basic idea that, at the very least, Australians who show up for work and do an honest job should be able to build on their earnings, even if they only do short stints at various workplaces. The ACTU will be leading the drive for a national portable entitlements scheme aimed at reducing job and income insecurity.

Individual Australians on their own do not have the power or resources that are available to the corporations. But as union members, tapping into long history of Australians standing up for what’s fair, they can get that power.

What’s made this country great and made our society so strong is that generations of working people decided that the status quo was ripe for improvement. They saw each other as they really were, as people with lives and homes and aspirations for their loved ones, not as consumers or clients or just another cost on the balance sheet.

If we work together we can make security, respect, equality the future of work in Australia. We can adjust our thinking and improve our culture. We can challenge the status quo.

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