Work crumbling to bits and pieces

IT IS now a decade since I left permanent full-time employment. As it happens at roughly the same time Australia’s workforce hit a cross-over point. Those in full-time employment are now out-numbered by the rest of the workforce.

The most recent figures have 5.8 million in permanent full-time employment in a workforce of just over 11.6 million.

The others are: 2.8 million working part-time; two million employed as independent contractors or small business operators; 700,000 unemployed and 300,000 full-time non-permanent employees are working on contract.

The trend against full-time permanent employment continues.

Of course, a large slice of the workforce has always been independent contractors and small business operators, especially those who need a ticket to work – the professions and trades.

But the growth in non-permanent work appears to be in part-time, casual and contract work that used to be done by permanent full-time employees – a lot of it in the form that can now be done at home because of computerisation and the internet.

So technology has enabled the trend.

Further, high immigration and population growth has added to the trend.

But it has also been boosted by the attitude of organised labour and organised capital.

Unions have sought greater power in the workforce and greater protection for workers against dismissal, being moved or having shifts changed. It is not just a question of money.

As a consequence, however, employers have shied away from employing people as permanent and full-time as much possible. Often they have to fight unions to do that.

So the ironic position is that as unions have won greater security for permanent employees there are fewer of those employees enjoying that security.

Organised capital, on the other hand, is driven by greed – the maximum buck for the minimum effort. Or in the parlance of those capitalists – “greater efficiency”.

Whenever they could get away with it, they have outsourced, down-sized, casualised, contracted out, off-shored and sub-contracted.

For every upside there is a downside, but it seems that the downsides increase as skills decrease.

For the more highly paid and highly skilled the upsides of non-permanent work are manifold.

Security: If you contract to four or five “employers” and one sacks you, or discontinues your work, you always have the others to fall back on.

Work satisfaction: You can always sack an “employer” whose work you find boring, not highly enough paid or distasteful or who you personally dislike, without risking security.

Flexibility: You can work whenever it suits you. Work at night or in the early morning or weekends. Play in core weekday hours. Never work when the kids are being taken to and from school. Also you do not have to dress up to go to work.

Now for the downsides. The downsides are harder for the less well-paid and less skilled.

Beck and Call: Contractors feel they must take every job as it comes otherwise they will not make a living. Only the highly skilled can afford to tell people offering work that you don’t want it. It means no holidays or clear breaks.

Carry your own overheads: Contractors have to provide their own tools of trade, especially computers and software. There is no “IT section” to come and fix it. Or chair repair person.

Do your own accounting or pay someone else to do it: Permanent workers do not have to worry about taking out tax and so on. The money rolls in every fortnight. Contractors have to send out invoices, chase up non-payers and do their own business activity statements or pay someone else to do it.

Do your own training. If you take up a contract and suddenly find you have to do something new, you have to train yourself. Courses are rarely available where and when you need them. Or if they are they are prohibitively expensive and there is no guarantee they will teach you what you want. So you struggle away on your own.

No sick leave. If you get sick you have to work through it. Only the highly skilled can be confident that their “employers” will not engage someone else.

No social engagement with co-workers. Unless you are on contract to an organisation with a workplace, you have little contact with fellow workers. People in trades and professions have their trade and professional bodies and tend to socialise, but the newly out-sourced contractors do not have that. Even contractors in the workplace are regarded by co-workers as different – temporary, ephemeral and not worth investing social effort upon.

That is the upside and downside from the perspective of the individuals. What about society as a whole?

The upside is efficiency and corporate profits. These are passed on these days even to the lowest income-earner with an employer superannuation contribution.

But at what cost?

We see Australian “booming” compared to the rest of the world, but retail spending is wobbly. Either we have dropped after we have shopped too much, or more likely we are insecure and ironically the capitalists who have profited from out-sourcing are losing from lower demand from an insecure workforce.

Then there is social cohesion. This trend away from permanent employment is recent. In the more highly paid and highly skilled areas, it has disproportionately affected people in their 50s and 60s. These people have usually built up skills in a workplace paid for by an employer.

In my own case, The Canberra Times paid for a vast amount of on-the-job training where I benefited from the skills and experience of older colleague and for a huge amount of formal training in computing, management and corporate skills.

The people I contract to now get the indirect benefit of that. They are happy. I am happy. But what about society in general?

It seems to me that in the past decade or so we have spawned a generation of corporate bludgers. They do not see themselves as that. They are just running their corporations “efficiently”. But, in effect, they are benefiting from decades of earlier investment by corporations into their workforces.

When the great majority of people were in full-time permanent employment, true, a lot of people moved form job to job and new employers benefited. But that was swings and roundabouts. The losses and benefits balanced out as skilled employees moved from one employer to another.

But in the new world of the outsourced contractor we are eating into the training capital of the past and not replacing it.

We are also eating into the social capital of cohesive relationships that build up within a workforce.

A decade later, I still meet and socialise with my former colleagues from the land of permanent full-time work. Nearly all of them are, like me, contractors or self-employed.

Its fine for a croc like me to get three decades’ worth of training in full-time employment and then in my early 50s be saleable for a decade or more in the out-sourced world. But it will not work if someone’s work experience is in the world of contracting from the outset.

I hate to use the word “unsustainable”, but it is. Without a higher ratio of full-time permanent employees who get the on-the-job and employer-funded training, there will be nothing left for the corporate bludgers to bludge on.

Leave alone the question of social cohesion in a world where an increasing majority work on their own.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 24 August 2013.

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