Rising insecurity as more jobs go

There is a growing disconnect between the official rosy picture of the Australian economy and mounting public anxiety about job security. The latest official unemployment rate figure (for January 2012) was steady at 5.2% and federal Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson insists there is no reason to worry. Australians, he said, should shake off their misplaced “boom with gloom” attitude.

“The whole mindset is a bit overdone, it’s almost as if most Australians think we live in Greece.

”We don’t, we actually have an incredibly bright future ahead of us”, said Parkinson to a Senate estimates hearing, “the opportunities we have in front of us are the like we have never seen before.”

But the headline unemployment rate hides the actual job situation. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has reported rises in underemployment and the numbers of discouraged job seekers since 2007.

ABS estimated that at the end of last year there were 873,500 underemployed workers ( i.e. part-time workers wanting more hours of work or full-time workers being forced to work less hours) in addition to 627,500 unemployed. Since November 2007, 191,400 more Australian workers became underemployed.

The number of discouraged jobseekers (people who want to work and are available to work but were no longer actively looking for work because they believed they would not find a job) have also been rising since 2007. The ABS estimated to have reached 102,100 by September 2010.

An ACTU report Insecure work, anxious lives: the growing crisis of insecure work in Australia found that casual jobs, short term contracts and other insecure forms of work are on the rise and secure jobs are getting harder and harder to find.

  • Only around 60% of workers are in full or part-time ongoing employment.
  • More than 4 million workers are engaged as casuals, on short-term contracts, in labour hire, or as independent contractors.

The sum of unemployed, underemployed and discouraged jobseekers is more 1.6 million. From their perspective and from the perspective of the millions workers with insecure jobs and under the yoke of record household debt, Parkinson’s words are a cruel joke.

Since the beginning of this year all the big banks have begun shedding jobs as have the car manufacturing giants General Motors – Holden and Toyota, aluminium producer Alcoa and the privatised communications giant Telstra. On top of that federal and state governments are destroying jobs to try and return to surplus budgets and deliver tax cuts to big business.

On February 29, a major construction company in NSW, the Reed Group, announced it was in trouble. Brian Parker, the NSW secretary of the building division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) warned a meeting of Unions NSW on March 1 that if Reed collapsed, the ripple effect could cost up to 10,000 jobs.

Job shedding by bigger companies gets into the news but job losses by workers in small and medium sized businesses are not often reported. The ABS estimates that about half of all workers in Australia are employed in small businesses, defined as employing 20 or fewer workers.

According to a report by Dun & Bradstreet, the number of such small businesses going bankrupt jumped by 48% over the last 12 months, while small business start-ups fell by 95% over the same period. Small business failures among firms with less than five employees grew 57% over the year.

So what is the solution?

Last week, Gerry Harvey the chairperson of the electronics and furnishing Harvey Norman retail chain appealed to the public to start spending up again instead of paying down their credit card and other debts to avoid more businesses bankruptcies and job losses.

If we listen to Harvey ordinary people should just get deeper into debt and go on a shopping spree. Other big capitalists tell us to have faith that the billions of dollars of profits now being made by the big mining companies and the banks will trickle down to us.

The Gillard Labor government assures that its subsidies to big car companies and its promised company tax cuts will help save jobs. But will they?

Billions of dollars have been spent by governments over decades to subsidise big steel manufacturing companies and car companies in the name of saving jobs. These companies have taken the money, made huge profits, paid obscene amounts to their CEOs and gone on to shed more than 30,000 jobs in the steel industry and 20,000 in car manufacturing.

Public subsidies to protect the profits of big corporations won’t guarantee jobs. If big profits meant job security, Australia’s big four banks shouldn’t be embarking on a new wave of bank shedding. Last year, they reported a combined profit of $25.2 billion.

ACTU President Ged Kearney recently noted that “the combined salaries of the four major banks’ CEOs totaled $28.6 million. This, along with the massive profits makes it impossible to feel any sympathy for their complaints about their financial circumstances.”

“At the same time,” she added, “the big four banks last year slashed 3300 jobs and already in the first month of this year, Westpac and ANZ have announced plans to shed another 730 jobs between them.”

On February 12, Finance Sector Union national secretary Leon Carter told reporters that 2,000 jobs had gone this year and added: “If this pace continues, we stand to lose 10,000 jobs over the next 18 months.”

Most of Australia’s trade union leadership follows the Gillard Labor governments line that jobs can be saved through more corporate subsidies and more corporate tax cuts. But one trade union leader has broken from the pack and is advocating a different course.

In his exclusive interview with Green Left Weekly on February 18, Geelong Trades and Labor Council secretary Tim Gooden said:

“People say it’s a private world, a free market — that’s crap. All the risk has been socialised, all the profits are privatised.

“In reality, society is pretty much paying for these companies anyway. If the corporate system can’t maintain them, then the public system should take them over…

“If an industry became redundant, workers should be retrained on full pay into the new industry, not thrown on the scrapheap like we see today.

“Nationalisation would also be cheaper — if we aren’t paying business board members millions to suck on cigars, the costs would be lower. And any funds raised are for public, not private, use.

“Importantly, we would be able to plan any scale down of an industry that society decides is redundant or harmful. We could put the resources and skills into industries we want.”

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