Insecure Work: We Can Debate the Solutions, But There’s No Denying the Problem

The Centre for Future Work recently published a statistical compendium on the growth of insecure work in Australia’s labour market.

The report, The Dimensions of Insecure Work: A Factbook by Dr. Tanya Carney and Dr. Jim Stanford,[1] came to a startling conclusion: less than 50 percent of employed Australians now hold down a permanent full-time paid job with normal entitlements (such as sick pay and holiday pay).

For the first time in this recorded data, the majority of employed workers now experience one or more dimensions of non-standard or insecure work: whether casual, part-time, temporary, self-employment, or “gigs.” Insecure work has become the new normal.

The report generated substantial media coverage in newspapers, broadcastand social media, and even the international press (including a story in London’s Financial Times). It confirms popular concern (and growing political pressure) over the erosion of job stability in Australia — and related labour market problems like low pay, poor wage increases, and widening inequality.

Facing growing complaints about the shortage of stable, decent jobs (especially acute for young job-seekers), and growing political pressure for major changes to Australia’s labour rules, employer lobbyists and allied commentators assert that Australian jobs are actually more secure, not less, and that the labour market is performing very well. For example, Craig Laundy, Australia’s Minister for workplaces, argues the employment system “is working exactly as it was designed,” that “casual work is … completely appropriate,” and that insecure work has not become more common. “The rate of insecure work in this country is … completely where it was 20 years ago,” Mr. Laundy claims.[2] Business peak bodies have made similar claims, trying to head off growing demands to “Change the Rules” of employment and industrial relations. The Australian Industry Group’s Chief Executive denies “any prevailing insecurity.”[3]

A strident example of this attempt to deny that insecure work is even a problem is provided by Professor Judith Sloan’s recent critique of our work.[4] She devoted an entire weekend column in The Australian to debunking our report on insecure work. She used needlessly extreme language that both emphasised the ideological nature of her mission, and diminished her own authority: claiming that we inhabit a “dream world,” where “government might as well take over the entire economy,” and that we essentially advocate “communism” (which, after all, “worked out so well in the past”).

When she turned to the actual statistics, Professor Sloan claims she has “no idea” how we determined that less than half of employed Australians are paid employees in permanent, full-time jobs with paid leave entitlements. She just had to check the official ABS sources that are clearly cited in our report. Detailed quarterly labour force statistics published by the ABS (in their Catalogue 6291.0.55.003, data set EQ04) list the number of Australians engaged in different forms of employment. Full-time paid employees with leave entitlements (typically considered as an indication of permanent employment) averaged 6.127 million over the four quarters of 2017, representing slightly under 50 percent of total average employment for the year (from the same source). The proportion of total employment in traditional standard jobs has been shrinking for years — chipped away on all sides by growing part-time work, casual positions, and very insecure forms of self-employment. But crossing the 50 percent threshold is surely an important indicator that the world of work is fundamentally changing, and that most workers (and their families) can no longer count on predictable work with predictable, adequate pay.

All the other statistics cited in our report (which surveyed eleven indicators of insecurity in work, including part-time work, precarious self-employment, and temporary migrant labour) are also fully referenced with official ABS and government data sources. Professor Sloan’s attempt to discredit our research as somehow non-factual or unprofessional is not legitimate; her approach diminishes the prospects for informed, evidence-based policy debate regarding these important issues.

Echoing the arguments of the AiG and other business lobbyists, Professor Sloan cites some alternative statistics to support her claim that jobs are actually becoming more stable, not less. One is the oft-made claim that casual work has not actually grown. At over 25 percent of paid employees, casual work has definitely increased over the past several years, and is now at near-record levels. Yes, the incidence of casual work has been high at other times in the past: exhibiting previous peaks in the late 1990s and again in the mid 2000s. So judging whether it has “grown” obviously depends on the choice of time frame: the incidence of casual work is definitely higher than it was 5 years ago, it approximately equals previous peak levels, and it’s far higher than it was in the 1970s and 1980s (before the advent of so-called “flexible” labour market rules). Our report was fully transparent in both specifying our choice of time frame (we measured five-year changes in all of the indicators we analysed), and explaining the rationale for that choice: prior to 2012, strong labour market conditions arising from the mining boom masked (for a while) a structural trend toward less secure work. Since 2012, however, the combination of continuing structural change and weak cyclical conditions has magnified the problem. That’s not “cherry-picking,” as Ms. Sloan complains — unless you believe the mining boom and associated job conditions will suddenly reappear.

The fact that the incidence of casual work, now at a near-record level, has also been high at other times in history, hardly makes the problem go away. And this time, casualisation has been accompanied by growth in other dimensions of job insecurity. Indeed, it is the multi-dimensional nature of insecure work — with many workers experiencing more than one aspect of that insecurity — that was our most important finding. For example, we showed that part-time self-employed individuals with no employees are among the least secure of all workers: experiencing ongoing fluctuations in hours of work and falling real incomes.

Another piece of evidence cited by Professor Sloan (and other business studies) is the relatively low share of workers (currently about one in five) who’ve been with their current employer less than 12 months. She interprets the fact that most workers have held their current positions for more than 12 months as evidence of job stability. But this statistic cannot be interpreted so optimistically; in fact, Professor Sloan’s logic is precisely backwards. When it’s so hard to find a decent, secure job, few workers will risk leaving one job for another. This is a key factor behind Australia’s unprecedented wage stagnation, since employers face virtually no “exit threat” from their workers, and hence feel little pressure to raise wages (unless pressed by minimum wage increases or enterprise bargaining). Moreover, if the pace of new job creation slows, then the proportion of workers in a job for less than a year will automatically shrink. The share of workers in their jobs less than 12 months was relatively high during the strongest years of the mining boom for both of these reasons (strong job-creation and a willingness by workers to move to new positions). Then it plunged during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008–09 — a shift that Ms. Sloan’s interpretation would see as evidence that work suddenly became more secure. That ratio still hasn’t recovered to pre-GFC levels; it is clearly a sign of fear, more than of stability.

Professor Sloan believes fervently that “the Australian labour market has performed very well.” That will come as a surprise to the millions of Australians facing underemployment, irregular working hours, stagnant or falling real incomes, and the loss of traditional work-related benefits (like sick pay, holiday pay, and superannuation).

We can certainly debate the best policy responses to the phenomenon of non-standard, insecure work. But there should be no debate about whether or not it even exists.

— Dr. Jim Stanford
Director, Centre for Future Work at The Australia Institute

— -

[1] Please see the full report at https://www.futurework.org.au/the_dimensions_of_insecure_work.

[2] Quotes from interview with Fran Kelly, RN Breakfast, ABC Radio, 21 March 2018, http://www.abc.net.au/ radionational/programs/breakfast/craig-laundy/9570068.

[3] Innes Willox, “How Workers Really Feel About their Job Security,” Australian Industry Group, 23 May 2018, https://blog.aigroup.com.au/how-workers-really-feel-about-their-job-security/; see also Julie Toth, “Casual Work is NOT Rising in Australia,” Australian Industry Group, 28 May 2018, https://blog.aigroup.com.au/casual-work-is-not-rising-in-australia-explained-in-five-charts/; Jessica Irvine, “Who’s Telling the Truth About Casual Workers in Australia,” Sydney Morning Herald, 21 March 2018, https://www.smh.com.au/ politics/federal/ who-s-telling-the-truth-about-casual-workers-in-australia-20180321-p4z5ig.html; and Adam Gartrell, “Employers Accuse ACTU Boss of Peddling Lies to Boost Union Membership,” Sydney Morning Herald, 21 March 2018, https://www.smh.com.au/ politics/federal/employers-accuse-actu-boss-of-peddling-lies-to-boost-union-membership-20180321-p4z5h1.html.

[4] Judith Sloan, “Australia Institute’s Employment Data Needs Work,” The Australian, 16 June 2018.

CFW, housed within the Australia Institute, conducts and publishes progressive economic research on work, employment, and labour markets. https://www.futurework

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store