Victorians emerging from lockdowns now confront Australia's harsh COVID-era work reality marked by more insecure jobs, mass unemployment, and long-term work at the kitchen table.
In this commentary, which originally appeared in The Age, Centre for Future Work Senior Economist Alison Pennington discusses what the pandemic reveals about Australia's high levels of insecure work, new work-from-home risks, and how rebuilding more secure labour markets will be critical to creating more good jobs in our post-COVID recovery.
Working from home, once a novelty, is now wearing thin
Lockdowns in Victoria meant that entire cohorts of workers who previously interacted in the flows of the daily commute – the morning coffee, dropping kids off at school – were suddenly pulled apart and isolated from each other, connected only by the occasional masked "hello" on the street.
As Melbourne emerges from these lockdowns, we acknowledge our public health success has not come without immense sacrifice. Healthcare and other frontline and essential workers exposed themselves to the virus to help keep us safe. Hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers in customer-facing sectors were pulled off the job to stop the spread.
But COVID-era work sacrifices are not simply dependent on what industry you work in. It also matters on what work conditions people had coming into the pandemic, with those in insecure jobs the first to be discarded in the crisis.
The pandemic has shone a light on the growing scourge of insecure work. Around half of all employment in Australia has one or more dimensions of precarity including casual, temporary, part-time insufficient-hours work, self-employment. Precarious work contributed to the community spread of the virus, such as in the private aged care system where widespread practices of multiple jobholding led to transmission between facilities.
Businesses and workers moved fast in March to implement new remote-working models. Almost overnight, hundreds of thousands of private homes were transformed into workplaces.
The year is ending and in Melbourne we haven’t gone back to the office yet, and likely won’t for some time. Public health orders, employer demands to reduce crisis-era labour costs, and workers’ preferences means working from home will become a permanent feature of the new world of work: 81 per cent of workers at home want to keep working from home in some capacity.
Relaxation of top-down workplace practices seems one silver lining of the new WFH regime, as employers are forced to shift their focus to output rather than presence. Employers could well learn people work better without others breathing down their necks.
It’s true there’s much to like about WFH. I’ve finally unpicked my blue-collar work ethic to white-collar work, understanding getting the best from your brain doesn’t mean smashing it for eight hours straight. I sometimes intersperse work with playing music, with the piano sitting next to my work desk.
However, as well as moving to Melbourne just in time for the lockdown, my neighbour started renovations – a months-long bespoke "mate’s job", no swift commercial job. Working life is waking abruptly to circular saws followed by endless days of a "soothing downpour" of white noise through my headphones. It is sitting in my closet under a blanket doing radio interviews.
Needless to say, I’d like to return to an office – at least on those very loud days. There’ll be workers like me; home workers who want some hybrid between home and external office work. The opportunity to share workspaces with others.
People able to work from home are more likely to be professionals in permanent, full-time and better-paid work. In many ways, we have been protected from the worst health and economic impacts on workers. Though this doesn’t mean high economic and social costs haven’t been incurred by the WFH workforce. Risks and costs are mounting, including upfront and ongoing costs of running a home office, long work hours, income and job insecurity for employees with high caring demands, and the absence of national work, health and safety measures.
Australians’ propensity to work excessive overtime could be accelerated by our new home workplaces. The ACTU found 40 per cent of people working at home are doing more hours, and nearly all are not being compensated for them.
Keeping up with our jobs while confronting the constant anxiety of a global pandemic crisis has hurt many people’s mental health. Half of those working from home report increased stress, depression and self-harm. UK research suggests we face a tsunami of musculoskeletal workplace injuries as workers make do with dining tables, coffee tables, and desks ill-designed for eight or more hours of work.
This is why we need a new system of workplace protections for workers facing increased isolation and the risk of work intensification. France introduced a law requiring employers to implement software prohibiting emails from being sent outside office hours – this one I like!
But under current workplace laws, employees remain powerless to get out of the house and return to a formal workplace post-pandemic without a corresponding entitlement to return to the office.
As the recession deepens, millions of unemployed and insecure workers will continue to face great hardship. The fiscal costs of this mass displacement will be huge, but longer-run social costs – poverty, exclusion, despair, non-participation, declining health – will be even greater.
Working to build more secure labour markets is about reducing risks that major events don’t hit the most vulnerable hardest. Job-creating investment, quality public education and skills systems, income supports, and extending minimum labour standards like collective bargaining are critical to an inclusive post-COVID recovery.
The pandemic is our clarion call to create not just more jobs, but good quality jobs that reconnect millions to the experience of decent, ongoing work. Though we’re fatigued, this is where the work really starts.