There can be no fairness without decent work

No matter where you turn these days there seems to be a discussion about the future of work. From parties sloganeering about “jobs of the future”, to talk about the “disruption” of the “sharing economy”, to predictions about automated cars replacing taxis and therefore thousands of transport workers, you hear and read about the changing nature of work almost daily.

The future of work has, however, not been synonymous with discussions about making work fairer. The dominant theme has been that the changing of nature of work, mostly via advances in technology, is something that we will just have to grin and bear, even if we know that future jobs will be less fair. What is concerning is the seeming acceptance of this as an inevitability. The idea that jobs should remain fair to support a fair society as the economy changes is almost absent outside trade union and academic circles. In many ways, it reflects the fact that many progressive, especially younger Australians, seem to have ceded the primacy of politics in shaping our future. Young Australians today are facing an uncertain future, underpinned by growing intergenerational inequality and uncertainty at work.

Last year, I sat in a workshop in Parramatta about full employment. Full employment is not a term you hear that often these days. The concept of full employment felt a bit alien and almost quaint, associated with the supposed post-war golden age that ended 1970s. The fact that a mere mention of the term ‘full employment’ by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten earlier that year caused a flurry of excitement shows how out foreign the concept is in our modern society.

The workshop, organised by the Whitlam Institute, brought together trade unionists from both sides of the Tasman to talk about reviving an agenda of full employment. Part of the background reading for the workshop was a 1942 report by British social reformer William Beveridge, Full Employment in a Free Society.

Reflecting on it today, what struck me as I read the report was how radical it seemed and also how bizarre that the views of a leading British establishment liberal from the 1940s felt more radical than what we hear today in our discussions about work. Beveridge explained that full employment “means that the jobs are at fair wages, of such a kind, and so located that the unemployed men can reasonably be expected to take them.” He went on to state that “Employment is not wanted for the sake of employment, irrespective of what it produces…It must be productive and progressive.”

The legacy of the Great Depression hung over the country and Britain was still at war with the Axis, yet they were planning for a future without war, without want, squalor and ignorance. The goal of full employment had moral and ethical underpinnings and there was a societal responsibility to provide it. It’s a far cry from the rhetoric about any job being a good job that is used to berate job seekers.

Not only was the immense optimism of Beveridge stark but also his certainty that a fairer society would be constructed. Rather than shaping our own future, the overwhelming mood today is reacting to a future pre-determined for us where automation will take our jobs. There is elevation of buzzwords from management consultants like ‘resilience’, ‘agility’ and ‘fit for purpose’, to hide the fact that responsibility is shifted solely onto the individual. We are told we must constantly adapt to the changing world, accumulating more and more debt to update skills that were only just attained. If you fail to succeed, it is your own fault. Challenging this is seen as being defensive or attempting to “future-proof”.  Work has in effect become a duty that we do for the economy rather than employment providing both meaning and security. It reduces us to cogs in the engine room of the economy.

I am one of the lucky ones. I have the security of full-time job, earn an above the average wage, have access to leave, have autonomy and enjoy my work. I know this is not the norm. Many people struggle to get enough work, let alone have a job with decent pay and conditions that can support their future aspirations.

You have to be a part-time worker to be underemployed and Australia has the third highest level of part-time work in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The high proportion of part-time workers has driven underemployment and it is growing. Official unemployment may be just over 700,000 but when you include the underemployed it is more like 2 million.

Even those who have full time employment face challenges. Analysis by the Centre for Future Work identified that less than half of the labour force are full time workers with access to leave.

Young people in particular have felt the brunt of the current labour market. Full-time employment for young Australians has declined steadily since the Global Financial Crisis. Research commissioned by the ACTU found that 49% of 18 to 24 year olds said they cannot rely on getting regular work and 64% have no form of career progression. For those who are not tertiary graduates, it is even harder to get work. Over the past few decades, the dominant trend has been a rise in high skill employment as a share of employment. While there has not been a massive increase in low skilled jobs as a share like in the United States, middle skilled jobs have declined.

The absence of work that is secure, well-paid and full-time makes it difficult to plan for the future. You cannot get a mortgage if you live contract to contract, nor does it provide the stability that many seek if they want to have a family, or the luxury of flexible working arrangements for raising that family if you can afford to have one. It only serves to compound structural inequality between genders and generations.

On the other extreme, while many Australians cannot get enough work, many are working excessive hours. According to the Australia Institute, Australians are donating $128 billion in unpaid overtime each year to employers and it is growing. Rather than working the fifteen hours a week that Keynes predicted, two thirds of full-time employees are working more than 40 hours a week. Australia ranked 29th in the OECD in employees working very long hours with 13% of employees working 50 hours or more a week, more than the United States, Canada and most of Europe. Unsurprisingly Australia was also ranked 32nd out of 38 countries in time dedicated to personal care and leisure. We all know friends and family members who constantly work even when at home. The lines between work and home are blurred as technology has advanced, giving many people access to their work 24/7, and many people struggle to balance work and life.

Part of the driver of excessive working hours has been our work culture. The Australia Institute found that on average workers are performing five hours a week of unpaid overtime by working through breaks, taking work home and answering email out of hours.

While all this is happening, it is not as if ideas to address these problems are wanting. There has been a longstanding agenda of decent work, echoing Beveridge. Decent work is employment that “respects the fundamental rights of the human person as well as the rights of workers in terms of conditions of work safety and remuneration. … respect for the physical and mental integrity of the worker in the exercise of his/her employment.” The agenda seeks to provide opportunities for productive work and delivering a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organise and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality.

There are rafts of books, reports, inquiries and essays outlining practical ways to improve the world of work and ensure decent work. They offer routes to reverse the erosion of pay, conditions and job security that has occurred over the past few years.

We could tighten legislation around sham contracting and independent contracting and provide portable leave schemes so entitlements to paid leave are not lost when workers change jobs, substantially improving pay and conditions for many. It would remove the loopholes and financial incentives that exist to undercut decent work.

There could be the elimination of the distinctions between work so that all jobs have access to rights and conditions regardless of whether you are full-time, part-time, permanent or temporary to stop employers from gaming the system.

Everyone could be guaranteed genuinely flexible conditions to allow them to combine care and work and be provided with affordable universal care for children, those with disabilities and the elderly.

We could address underemployment and the excessively long hours that are worked by redistributing work through shorter working weeks, guaranteeing more paid leave and job sharing. More radically we could democratise workplace relationships through employee representation and institute a job guarantee to combat unemployment.

We could even go back to older ideas such as making the state as an exemplar of employment as Whitlam once did instead of the current situation where now poor conditions in the private sector are used to stoke envy and take away conditions in the public sector.

None of these ideas are particularly new and imaginative or truly out of left field and yet most of have not captured the imagination of most progressively minded young people when work is discussed. You don’t see many young people writing on these topics or even discussion in social media by anyone but the usual suspects of trade unionists and industrial relations academics. It almost feels unfashionable. Debates about the future of work are less about people and more about robots. The image that gets invoked by full employment and decent work is a cookie cutter 1950s house with a white picket fence, nine to five job, male breadwinner with a wife at home and two children in the suburbs. Talking about full employment and portable leave isn’t as exciting as “fully automated luxury communism”. When you discuss work it is a post-work agenda whether it isf the inevitability of a basic income as a result of job killing robots or the mentality of ‘Do What You Love’ that dominates.

The idea of the universal basic income has gained traction because of fears about automation. Part of the appeal of the basic income seems to be because it is utopian and for some time much of the Left has been without a utopian vision. It is a vision that is not steeped in nostalgia but rather modernity and in the minds of many it credible associates itself with the future. I also suspect part of the appeal is the individualism associated with it and scepticism and mistrust of the state. There is no associated duty or requirement of contribution or reciprocity, it is a right.

Universal basic income may restore universality and reshape welfare into social security but alone it is no solution. On its own it won’t address growing inequality as a result of the polarising labour market or the increasing concentration of wealth and power. There is a reason why supporters range from democratic socialists to free market advocates.

A basic income is not without its problems. It seems unlikely that any payment would be liveable on its own and it is likely to degenerate into a form of wage subsidy or a new Poor Law. Just as easily it can become a Trojan horse by the free market advocates to dismantle the welfare state where individuals are given a fixed amount and told to look after themselves.

The assumption of technological determinism that often underpins support for a basic income robs us of agency and there is no guarantee it will actually occur. The oft cited claim is that 47% of Americans will lose their jobs when an OECD study concluded the actual figure is more likely 9%. The claims that technology will destroy jobs and create significant unemployment are not new, nor has it borne out in the past. Rather than determining what should happen, we are told we should just accept it and be ready to adapt.

At the same time, there is a prevalence of the Do What You Love (DWYL) mantra where passion is what motivates work. It takes the form of working unpaid internships, terrible hours and bad pay because of the supposed pleasure you get from your job. Your job is not work, you do not do it for compensation but because you love the job. Having decent work is an afterthought to chasing your dreams.

Trawling through the website Ethical Jobs, you can see it in full flight. Charities and non-government organisations list voluntary roles and unpaid internships that are actually unpaid jobs. The roles are in graphic design, marketing and fundraising, communications, research and campaign work. They want passion but have fixed hours you will need to work and sometimes even require experience. The worst example I came across was a 6-8 hour per week voluntary assistant role to someone who received a $100,000 fellowship from a private charitable foundation for climate change campaigning. It is justified in the name of providing experience to people to get a job but what it does is erode the decency of work for all and strengthens socioeconomic privilege.

Only the privileged are able to work for free, subsidised by their family wealth. In many industries, the reliance on experience from unpaid work to get a job means that only the economically privileged can seek a career primarily for personal reward. If you are one of the lucky ones who can stay afloat, it is a sign of your class. As Miya Tokumitsu wrote in her Jacobin essay ‘In the Name of Love’:

“By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it.

It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.

What really has been lost is the belief that all jobs should be decent. There is now the belief that the “shit jobs” will disappear due to technology or if you hate a job, go find another one in your search for “the job”. Rather than improving work, you move on.

In a way both the appeals of DWYL and the post-work accelerationism behind a basic income are similar. They are both individualistic and focused on exercising personal choice to do what you want. Neither draw on a common belief or on contribution or reciprocity and both weaken a push for decent work for all. But why do both have such appeal amongst younger crowds?

That question cannot be answered without acknowledging the context of the last forty years that emphasised the individual and promoted a culture of consumer choice.

In 2016, Sydney University academic Ariadne Vromen, in conjunction with academics Michael Xenos and Brian Loader released some comparative research on the issues young people care about and their views on inequality. The research found that many young people individualised everyday social problems, away from traditional notions of collectivism and state responsibility.

The scope young people imagine for taking political action has been shaped by dominant political discourses that emphasise opportunity, choice, responsibility and rights. The dominance of this discourse reflected the broader neoliberal political context. Individuals and their agency are emphasised while downplaying structural factors and taking collective action to address material grievances and transform society. It is little surprise that trade union membership is much lower amongst younger Australians.

The research found that most young people seemed to conceive of equality in post-materialist rather than materialist terms. They suggested equality was created by everyday equal treatment in society, regardless of background and identity. Young people did not spontaneously suggest that it was up to governments to address their grievances and redress the experience of identity based inequality.

The research also found was very little critical engagement with inherited class privilege and a limited acknowledgement of structural disadvantage as most responses focused on how young people can choose to move out of disadvantage.

These views pose a big challenge for an agenda of decent work. An agenda of decent work does not mesh that easily with individualistic notions of opportunity, choice, responsibility or rights. It is fundamentally collective. It requires shifting unequal relationships of power.

To ensure the future of work is fair, what will need to be overcome is my generation’s internalising of neoliberal norms. The challenge is how to unpick the dominance of individualism and transform that into an understanding that collective action is needed that seeks structural change that goes beyond moments and can scale up into change. It requires rebuilding a solidarity that goes beyond traditional identity politics, a willingness to organise to take power not just reject it. It’s no easy task after forty years of neoliberalism.

Achieving decent work for all cannot be seen as a throwback to the 1950s. It must be clear that it does not mean a return to the past because that it not possible. The future of work cannot not only be full employment that provides fair income and certainty, it has to also mean a fuller democracy where individuals can reach their potential, a good life for all. It means rejecting the determinism of automation where we must adapt to a future we cannot control. It requires rejecting the co-option of individualisation into the absence of rather than transformation of authority. The single minded focus on basic income and ethic of Do What You Love will only lead us astray. Work matters to our lives. Without the stability, income and certainty that decent work provides, there can be no real choice or freedom in life. Ultimately, without it we cannot have a fair society.

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Why isn’t there a regular broad Left Conference?

A few months ago, the annual ALS Freidman Conference was held in Sydney. It is a get together of hundreds of classical liberals and libertarians regardless of their party affiliation. It got me thinking that though the Left often has conferences, there is no equivalent centrepiece event.

While there are left-wing conferences, there is often a focus on techniques rather than ideas. The largest frequent conferences, organised by Australian Progress, tend to be more about campaigning strategies and tactics rather than ideology. There have been other conferences more focused on ideas but they have been one-offs or party-centric such as Labor’s Progressive Australia, the Greens Reboot or SEARCH’s Left Renewal Conference.

It seems odd that there seems to be a lack of an ideological conference culture on the Left in Australia. Where events about ideas and policy do occur, they seem to be either academic or exclusive and small rather than seeking involvement and a mass audience. Maybe it is because the yardstick for comparison is somewhere like the United Kingdom where the Fabian Society and other organisations host regular conferences and are not held back by geographic distances. Maybe it once existed locally but disappeared as the institutional Left started to shrink.

I do, however, think there is appetite for a regular, pluralist Left conference about future we want that is not bogged down by partisan or factional squabbles or be stuck in the past. Ideas, policy and ideology matter because what is the point of strategy and tactics if we don’t have end goals?

There are a range of topics that need to be debated whether it is the challenge of generational politics, whether we can rebuild solidarity, organising around housing affordability, tackling inequality in all its forms, fighting climate changing, how to get a treaty, aiming for a six hour work week and universal basic income.

Any conference should seek to push boundaries and build better relationships amongst the broader Left. It should also be fun, forward looking and more like a festival, incorporating art, music and culture. Something exciting like The World Transformed rather than the usual talkfests where we hear from the same people who already have a platform. It also needs to be engaged beyond the traditional Left and avoid just having the same older set of speakers we hear all the time.

Organising a big festival-like conference is easier said than done and it will probably be better to start small and scale up but a regular event should be on the agenda for the Left so there can be a proper organised space for debating and exchanging ideas that cuts across the silos that do exist.

Australia won’t have a Corbyn or Sanders but there will be an anti-system response

It’s become a common shtick to ask why Australian politics seems to be very different from the rest of the Western world. Across the world, there is growing disenchantment with politics and existing institutions. Major parties on the centre-left and centre-right are struggling against insurgent challengers on the Left and Right, both internally and externally. It manifests in a common question that gets asked in progressive circles: Why don’t we have the equivalent of Sanders or Corbyn in Australia?

The short answer is that both are products of a particular context. Nothing happens in a vacuum. It does not happen without the broader politicisation that is occurring elsewhere.

Both Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn products of particular contexts, cultures and history. Corbyn is the product of a hard left tradition in the British Labour Party no longer exists in the ALP. In part, due to the discipline of the ALP and the emergence of a viable challenger on its left flank in the Greens. Sanders is a former Mayor in a small state, someone who has been outside the Democratic Party for all of his political career, arguing on a platform of democratic socialism as a candidate for Democratic nomination. There is no equivalent for the pathway Sanders took in Australia.

Both took advantage of unique conditions: open primaries in two-party dominant systems combined with a rejection of technocratic centre-left politics by a reshaped party base. It was fuelled by radicalisation that has happened in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, supported in particular by younger votes.

As Jason Wilson has noted, Australia has an outlier to this seemingly global trend of a strengthening Left. His argument is that the economic circumstances is the key difference. A recent Guardian feature on Generation Y seems to affirm this, a graph based on Luxembourg Income Study Database data showing that disposable income for Generation Y in Australia increased over three decades while elsewhere it was flat or decreased.

graph

While there are issues with the data, it does provide a clear picture. Young people in the rest of the world have gone backwards, not just since the Global Financial Crisis but for over a decade. The angers and frustrations expressed have been built up over a long period of time and are directly linked to falling standards of living.

My view is that the radicalisation that has occurred elsewhere will happen but hasn’t yet. There is an underlying dissatisfaction with politics. Young people are particularly concerned about the future, whether they will have a permanent job or be able to afford housing. That undercurrent was shown by the reaction to Richard Cooke’s essay on the boomer supremacy. Income growth has slowed since 2010, the affordability housing is a problem as are difficulties with finding decent secure permanent jobs amongst young educated people. The future they were sold is not appearing. The crunch has not happened and there has not been a catalyst.

Our electoral system, buttressed by preferential and compulsory voting as well as single member electorates, helps to cover up the extent of disengagement and disenchantment. There are anti-system votes for minor parties and support for politicians that seem to buck it but not a systematic challenge. An economic crisis may be what pushes people over the edge. If we do face a full-blown economic crisis, we may see that undercurrent turn into popular anger against a system that represents the state to the people rather than representing social bases.

If does happen here, however, there is no guarantee that it will come through the Labor Party or even the Greens. The closed nature of our parties makes it difficult for that surge to go through any existing well-established party. Furthermore, both Sanders and Corbyn have also been longstanding figures, there is no equivalent in any existing party that could play a similar role.

A new political formation will not be the immediate response. The emergence of social movements and its transmission into politics takes time. It is not immediate. Podemos, Corbyn, SYRIZA, Sanders, the HDP in Turkey, the New Power Party in Taiwan, none of appeared immediately. Arguably it was a defeat on the streets and realisation that they needed to take state power that compelled them to form political parties. It is similar to the decision made by Australian unions in the 1890s after the Maritime Strike. Their success also took years, not months and only gained considerable strength after they seemed like viable vehicles.

If this politicisation does emerge in Australia, it is unclear that it will benefit the Left. The reaction against establishment politics in many parts of Europe have not benefitted the Left but a reactionary Right, particularly in Central, Northern and Eastern Europe. The anti-establishment mood has not taken a left versus right stance but rather a people versus the elites/oligarchs/cartels.

Could we see something more like Trump here? A populist who denounces the corrupt elite but supports public spending is quite possible as Australia has not been immune to those outbursts of right-wing populism – One Nation and Clive Palmer being two notable recent examples. It is hard to predict because national factors play a huge role in how anti-system energies are channelled and barriers to entry are much higher here than elsewhere. Events and the response of strong personalities will play a big role in what happens.

Whatever does occur, it won’t be the same as North America or Western Europe. There is no guarantee that the established Left or the Right will benefit from anti-system energies. We won’t have a Corbyn or Sanders because our recent experience has been considerably different but like elsewhere a people versus oligarchic elites narrative is likely to dominate.