Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: Labour Market Implications of Australia's Failed COVID Strategy
As COVID and recession gripped the world, through 2020 and most of 2021 Australia recorded one of the best outcomes: lower infection, fewer deaths, and a faster, stronger economic recovery. That seeming victory has been squandered, however by the appalling and infuriating events of recent weeks. Purportedly in the name of 'protecting the economy', key political leaders (led by the Commonwealth and NSW governments) threw the doors open to the virus at exactly the wrong time: just as the super-infectious Omicron variant was taking hold.
The resulting surge in infections has been among the worst in the industrialised world (worse than the U.S. now, as shown in the following graph from Our World in Data). The implications of this massive outbreak for work, workers, production, and the economy have been as predictable as they are devastating. One-third or more of workers in the most-affected regions cannot attend work: because they contracted COVID, were exposed to it, or must care for others (like children barred from child care and soon, possibly, schools).
Our Centre for Future Work team has been active in highlighting the risks of 'letting it rip', analysing the failures of isolation and income support programs, and reminding everyone that keeping workers healthy must be the first priority in keeping the economy healthy. Here is a selection of our recent interventions:Read more
As Collective Bargaining Erodes in Australia, Solutions from Other Countries Could Strengthen Bargaining and Lift Wages
New research on international collective bargaining systems, released today in a special issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Labour and Industry, finds that Australia’s industrial relations system is rapidly losing its ability to support wages in the face of numerous challenges (now including the Omicron outbreak).
On the heels of new data showing further erosion of Australia’s collective bargaining system, researchers and practitioners from five countries have identified best practices from other countries that could strengthen collective bargaining and lift wages.Read more
Putting a Cap on Community: The Economic and Social Consequences of Victoria’s Local Government Rate Caps Policy
The Victorian Government’s policy of capping of local government rates revenue in Victoria is a regressive move on economic, social and democratic grounds. By arbitrarily tying the growth in total rates revenue in each local government area to price indexes, the state government restricts the ability of local governments to respond to the COVID-19 crisis with expanded, secure employment and service offerings.
Rates on property are the largest single source of revenue to local governments in Victoria. Of total Victorian local government revenue in 2019-20 ($11.7 billion), rates accounted for $5.6 billion or almost half. Since 2016-17, the Victorian state government has capped the amounts local governments can collect from their ratepayers.
New research by the Centre for Future Work, commissioned by the Australian Services Union, finds that the imposition of rate caps has cost up to 7425 jobs in 2021-22, counting both direct local government employment and indirect private sector jobs. They have also reduced GDP by up to $890 million in 2021-22. The costs of suppressed local government revenues, and corresponding austerity in the delivery of local government services, will continue to grow with each passing year if the policy is maintained.
The rate cap policy becomes more restrictive as the overall economy slows, since the rate cap is tied to inflation indexes which tend to slow when the economy is weak.Read more
The COVID-19 pandemic severely disrupted global labour markets, and exposed long-standing gaps in social protection systems. Governments around the industrialised world injected hundreds of billions of dollars into a range of unprecedented crisis measures: to support individuals who lost work, to subsidise employers to retain workers despite the fall-off in business, and to facilitate workers to stay away from work when required for health reasons. More recently, as the pandemic progressed and vaccination became widespread, governments have begun considering how to transition toward a post-COVID policy stance.
In several countries, governments with stronger commitments to public health and safety, and a more inclusive and equitable recovery from COVID-19, have been more cautious and incremental in scaling back government interventions. Some have also made permanent improvements to income security and other policies whose shortcomings became more apparent during the pandemic. In Australia, however, the phase-out of COVID-19 wage subsidies and income supports was accelerated and premature – perhaps more so than any other major industrial country. A new comparison of COVID support policies across numerous industrial countries confirms the economic and public health risks of the rapid elimination of Australia's COVID programs.Read more
Working From Home, or Living at Work? Hours of Work, Unpaid Overtime, and Working Arrangements Through COVID-19
2021 marks the thirteenth annual Go Home on Time Day, an initiative of the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute focusing on overwork among Australians, including excessive overtime that is often unpaid.
As the health crisis of COVID-19 has continued, many workers are doing at least some of their work from home, and the standard scenario of workers ‘staying late at the workplace’, which largely framed our analysis in the past, is now supplemented by a different dimension of excessive work and unpaid overtime. This year’s report considers whether home work will become the “new normal” for many workers even after the acute phase of the pandemic finally passes – and what new pressures on working hours, work-life balance, and unpaid overtime are unleashed by the work-from-home phenomenon. The post-COVID rise in home work may constitute a further incursion of work into people’s personal time, and a further undercutting of Australia’s minimum standards around employment (including hours, overtime, and penalty rates).
Our survey found the average Australian employee puts in 6.1 hours per week of unpaid overtime, despite the shift towards home work. This is a substantial increase from 2020, which in turn was a substantial increase from 2019. In many cases, people’s responsibilities in their home lives have increased in response to the health and social crisis, accentuating a double burden of unpaid work – one that is experienced disproportionately by women.Read more
Casual employment has dominated Australia’s labour market recovery from COVID-19. And the right of employers to hire staff on a casual basis in almost any role they choose – including jobs that on their face appear have permanent characteristics – seems to have been cemented by recent amendments to the Fair Work Act, and by the High Court’s recent ruling in the WorkPac v. Rossato case.
What do these new developments mean for the further spread of casual and precarious work? What are the other implications of the High Court ruling for future employer strategies? And what options remain for limiting the spread of casual and insecure work? To examine these matters and their implications, we were recently joined by renowned labour law expert Professor Andrew Stewart from the University of Adelaide.
Andrew's highly informative presentation can be viewed below:
Our research at the Centre for Future Work is motivated by a deep commitment to improving the jobs, working conditions, and living standards of working people in Australia and around the world. We combine our knowledge of economics, our quantitative and qualitative research, and our connections with trade unionists and social movements to develop arguments and evidence that supports campaigns for decent work, stronger communities, and sustainability.
Our Director, Dr. Jim Stanford, was recently asked to contribute his ideas on the links between progressive economics and real-world social change movements for a forthcoming collection: The Handbook of Alternative Theories of Political Economy, edited by Frank Stilwell, Tim Thornton, and David Primrose, forthcoming in 2022 from Edward Elgar Press in the UK.Read more
Information industries have lost some 60,000 jobs in Australia in the last 15 years, almost half during the COVID-19 pandemic. And a new research report highlights the need for active policy supports to stabilise the media industry, and protect the public good function of quality journalism.
The new report, The Future of Work in Journalism, was written by Dr. Jim Stanford with the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute. It catalogues the employment and economic damage wrought in media and information industries by the combination of technological change, new business models, and globalisation.Read more
New research confirms that workers in casual and insecure jobs have borne the lion’s share of job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic – both the first lockdowns in 2020, and the more recent second wave of closures.
Since May, workers in casual and part-time jobs have suffered over 70% of job losses from renewed lockdowns and workplace closures. Casual workers have been 8 times more likely to lose work than permanent staff. And part-timers have been 4.5 times more likely to lose work than full-timers.
“Workers in insecure jobs have been the shock troops of the pandemic,” said Jim Stanford, Economist with the Centre for Future Work and author of the report. “They suffered by far the deepest casualties during the first round of layoffs. Then they were sent back into battle, as the economy temporarily recovered. But now their livelihoods are being shot down again, in mass numbers.”Read more
The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic disruptions, both within Australia and globally, have highlighted the strategic importance of a vibrant manufacturing sector to national economic performance and resilience. The Economic References Committee of the Senate of Australia recently conducted an inquiry into the future of Australia's manufacturing industry, and the policy measures that are essential to ensuring its presence and success.
The Centre for Future Work made a submission to the inquiry, drawing on our previous research into the spilllover benefits of healthy manufacturing, Australia's structurally unbalanced engagement in global manufactures trade, and the important role Australia's renewable energy endowments could play in leveraging future manufacturing expansion.
Please see our full submission, authored by Jim Stanford and Dan Nahum.