May 2003 #4

Jeeves, my Jacket Please!

I made a small wager that the GG would resign today (Thursday) and he beat me to it by a day. Such is life. However, lucky for him, he gets to enjoy the splendour and service of the "Big House" - at our expense - for another couple of months. During that time there will be debate and much heat about whether he can get a state pension that will run to something like $180,000 PA for the rest of his life. And here I was thinking that so called great men of the cloth - particularly those who's reputation is built on helping the needy - were chosen by higher powers because of their willingness to forsake mammon. Silly me.

But this does raise the very interesting question of what it means to be a worker these days.

Some of the most recent statistics show that Australia is, economically speaking, one of the worlds most prosperous nations. All the indicators seem to show that we are working harder, smarter and far more productively than at any other time in our history.

Yet there are other statistics that tell us things are not all that good for those who produce the nation's wealth. Unlike those who get to live off the taxes of those they used to help, it seems that for many workers, their hopes and dreams of the easy life are getting further and further out of reach.

The following figures appeared in a recent Age article and while they relate to the Victorian situation, I suggest they do represent at good picture of what many us are experiencing.

According to the 2001 census many medium size rural towns are home to up to 40% casualised work forces. Over three quarters of a million Victorian workers whose main income is derived from part time work want to find full time work but are unable to. Twice as many part time jobs have been created over the last twenty years than full time jobs. While regional Victoria has experienced steady population growth over the last 13 years, only one third of those seeking work have found work - and all of that has been part time. Between two thirds and three quarters of all jobs created in the state of Victoria since 1990 have been part time.

What could all this mean?

On one level it means that smart bosses, assisted by weak unions, weak political oppositions and very strong political allies, have pushed through changes to workplace laws that allow such things as split shifts. That is, where for many in the service and tourism industries, they come in at say, 6:00 am and work till 10:00, then come back in at, say 4:00pm and work till 8:00pm. That way their boss has a key, skilled workforce at the peak times of day and he or she doesn't need to pay them a cent more. The worker then pays the costs of making two trips to work and back each day. Freeing the boss up to make even more profit.

In other cases, bosses employ people only on weekends and in a small concession they pay a slightly higher hourly rate, but when the worker finds a need for more hours they are told there are none. If the worker is asked to work extra, rather than pay them the due rate, they get them to take time off in lieu. Add to this the introduction of individual workplace agreements and we can see whose agenda is driving work place relations in this country.

I remember a couple of years ago talking with a teacher. She had worked in the same school for over ten years. She had never had a permanent job and, up until that time had been happy to work on a short-term contract basis. However, a change in her living arrangements meant that she needed to borrow money to re-establish herself. However, when she went to the bank, the bank she had been a loyal customer with since she was a child, she was knocked back because, the bank told her, she was not in a position to guarantee them that she could meet the loan conditions as she didn't have a steady job. As a casual worker, the banks weren't willing to lend her money and, in a strange twist, by refusing to take her custom on, lost the opportunity to make money of the interest she would pay.

Another story relates to an acquaintance who was offered an AWA. He took it, signed it in haste because he wanted to go full time "permanent" and a little less than six months later was laid off before the casuals - from whose ranks he had defected - because his AWA had a clause in it relating to terms of employment and dismissal. The whole deal was skewed towards his employer - a large multi-national. He went from part-time casual to unemployed in six months. His legal advice was that there was nothing he could do as he should have read the AWA before he signed it (he did but the legalese was far to complex).

In effect we have allowed a system to grow around us that is slowly sucking the life out of us and our communities. We hear our politicians telling us we're working harder, smarter and more productively - and the economic figures reflect that. But at the social level we find people dropping out of community groups because of the stress and work loads. We see our friends less and less because they are working different hours now. We find our families dispersing as they look for work and we find our individual economic security being siphoned off in the ever expanding "user pays" world of public services. The casualisation of the work force is great for bosses and the taxman. Its good for the wealth accumulators but it is assisting in the death of community.

From time to time I watch with interest those "home auction" shows on TV and see young couples buying their first homes for $500,000, or $700,000 and wonder what happens to them if their income situation changes in two, five or ten years. I see more and more TV programs that tell us how to get away or how to make our homes better or our gardens more viable. Yet at the same time

I know of people who, due to their casual employment haven't had a proper holiday in five years because they're too afraid to take time off in case the boss finds someone else. I know of others who work all week at two and in one case three part time jobs in order to earn enough to fulfil the life style obligations she enjoys. But she says to me often, "Shane, I'm enjoying it while I can because pretty soon it will all come crashing in". Unlike our ex-Governor General, she doesn't have and cant afford lawyers to argue the case for full retirement benefits.

So there we have it. The class structure in this country revealed. For those who mix in the highest circles we find they receive their sinecures and the blessing of the state as they retire into luxury, while at the coal face, workers of all ages are forced to accept conditions that to the upper classes, are, so it seems, what God intended them to accept.

Well, I've got to go now; my pedicurist is waiting, as is my personal trainer. The limo is warmed up and the driver doesn't like to wait. So I'll be off now - make sure you clean up after me and hide yourself away before I return.

Jeeves, my jacket please.