Of 3’s, and Other Important Labour Market Numbers

Will an unemployment rate with a 3 in front it, ensure that we also get wage growth with a 3 in front of it? Don’t count on it.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison set tongues wagging this week with a confident pledge that Australia’s unemployment rate could have “a 3 in front of it” this year. It’s a theme that will loom large in his campaign for reelection later this year.

In this commentary, Centre for Future Work Director Jim Stanford considers whether a low unemployment rate is an accurate indicator of the state of the labour market -- and whether, even if achieved, it would reignite wage growth and solve other problems holding back Australia's labour market.

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CPI Numbers Don't Tell the Whole Story

With the rise in inflation as Australia's economy struggles with re-opening and supply chain problems, each release of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) generates headlines and political debate. But the CPI doesn't necessarily provide a full reading of price pressures: depending on who you are, and what you buy. In this column published in the Guardian Australia,  Greg Jericho (new policy director for the Centre for Future Work) dissects several measurement issues related to this most-watched economic statistic.

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Centre for Future Work Announces Two Senior Appointments

The Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute is pleased to announce the appointment of two senior staff to its team of labour policy researchers.

Greg Jericho will join the Centre on 1 February as Policy Director: Labour Market and Fiscal. Greg is an economist and well-known columnist for The Guardian in Australia; he currently teaches at the University of Canberra. He will continue writing his Guardian column, while overseeing new research projects for the Centre on issues of employment, wages, insecure work, and related topics.

Dr Fiona Macdonald will join the Centre on 1 March as Policy Director: Industrial and Social. Fiona is presently Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at the School of Management, RMIT University, and an internationally recognised expert on caring labour, gender and work, and industrial relations policy. She has published extensively on the Awards system, working conditions and compensation in human and caring services, and violence at workplaces. Fiona will oversee new research at the Centre on industrial relations reform, social policy, and caring labour.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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International Comparisons of Continuing COVID Support Programs

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.

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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.

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What Next for Casual Work? Professor Andrew Stewart webinar recording

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:

Ideas Into Motion: Progressive Economics and Social Change Movements

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.

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