Flexibility benefits bosses, not workers: Greens

Analysis

Flexibility benefits bosses, not workers: Greens

The increase in flexibility in the workplace relations system has failed employees, who now work longer and have less sustainable lives because of ‘flexibility from above’, according to the Greens.

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The increase in flexibility in the workplace relations system has failed employees, who now work longer and have less sustainable lives because of ‘flexibility from above’, according to the Greens.
 
As the Greens move towards holding the balance of power in the Senate after July, their IR spokesman Adam Bandt has made a major speech on the regulation of Australian workplaces to a conference in Canberra.
 
Bandt told the Personnel and Industrial Relations conference that a major question for the Greens was:
‘How do we have an industrial relations system that helps people live sustainable lives?’
He said there were three areas to consider:
  1. Workers bear the risk
  2. Australians work longer hours
  3. Gains are not shared 

1  Workers bear the risk

Workers and their families seem to be bearing the risk of a highly flexible and increasingly casualised workforce.
 
‘The increased flexibility of work has led to a situation where there is no standard model for how households and individuals interact with the workplace,’ Bandt said. 
 
‘The number of single income households has decreased significantly over the last twenty years; there has been a concurrent increase in dual income, one and a half times no income households.’ 
 
‘Many of the new jobs created through the 90s and early 2000s were in low paid industries, such as retail and hospitality, where casual and part time positions dominated.’
 
‘Those in casual and precarious work bear the most risk as a result of these flexible arrangements.’
 
‘Casual workers, who can work for a company for many years without one day of paid sick leave, one day of paid annual leave or paid public holiday, are bearing the burden of what I refer to as “flexibility from above”.’ 

2  Australians work longer hours
 
Many Australians are working far longer hours than they would like to, and some are working fewer. 
 
‘Even taking into account the loss of income, a third of all Australians would like to work on average nearly six hours less per week,’ Bandt said. 
 
‘While working mothers make a large proportion of this figure, it is interesting that almost half the fathers in couple households report a desire to work less.’ 
 
‘The majority of working Australians say that despite the benefits of employment, work still has far reaching negative impacts on their lives in the way it restricts the time they can spend on themselves, families, friends and communities.’
 
‘The 40 hour working week is, for most, a fantasy. We are working harder and longer than ever before but have less to show for it.’

3  Gains are not shared
 
The gains haven’t been shared fairly. 
 
‘Wages as a share of GDP has fallen from a high of 62% in 1983 to just over 52% in 2008,’ Bandt said.
 
‘This is a massive redirection of wealth away from workers pockets.’ 
 
‘The AIG often refers to so-called declines in productivity. I would suggest that as opposed to saying productivity has declined, it is perhaps better to say that the long term rise has eased in recent years. That is, labour productivity is not increasing as fast as it used to.’
 
‘But looking over the last two decades it is clear that productivity growth has significantly outpaced wages growth.’
 
‘To this one must add that in 1983 household debt was around 35% of household income. By 2008, this had increased to around 150%. And at the same time, we have a year on year increase in the number of workers reporting that they find it hard to get by on their income.’ 
 
Bandt said there were now ‘unsustainable tensions between work, life, income and debt — something is likely to give.’ 
 
He called for a reordering of workplace policies around sustainability, ‘a system where control over hours is also exercised from the bottom up’. 

Ways to regulate 
 
Bandt suggested a number of ways to regulate hours: 
  • Give people an enforceable right to work shorter working hours. 
  • Allow employees to start sharing in the productivity gains by allowing them to take gains in the form of fewer hours. That is, their hourly wages could perhaps rise by a basic cost of living increment, but any additional increase be foregone in lieu of working fewer hours. This could be an enforceable right that could be exercised in bargaining. 
  • Legislate across the board for a shorter working week. 
Bandt said all these ideas ‘have pros and cons’ and, for some, the cons may make them not worth pursuing. 
‘I am not proposing an across the board compulsion on us all to work less,’ he said.
 
‘I am proposing instead that we think about how people can work less if that’s what they want, and how people can work more if that’s what they want. Because I don’t think that “flexibility” as we have known it has delivered on its promise.’ 
 
Bandt also called for the right of workers to negotiate ‘Green’ issues as part of workplace bargaining. 
 
‘I expect there will be a variety of views on this, but it has always struck me as a perplexing irony that those who have led the charge away from a “one size fits all” centralised setting of wages and conditions and who argue the strongest against so called pattern bargaining, because it fails to take account of the [specific aspects] of a particular employer, are also the first ones to call for nationwide, interventionist, regulated restrictions about what parties can legitimately bargain about,’ he said. 
 
However he said the ‘good faith’ bargaining provisions should remain to prevent ‘fanciful’ demands.
 
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