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Australia risks developing subclass of working poor

02 October, 2012

As Australia's manufacturing sector contracts, a growing number of people are joining the ranks of the working poor with jobs that are low paid, unskilled, insecure and offer few career prospects, according to researchers at the University of Sydney Business School.

Organisers of a national conference that will seek to define job quality say Australia is at risk of mimicking the United States as it moves towards a polarised society with a highly paid group of people and a large underbelly of workers in unsustainable, unsatisfying, high turnover jobs.

"It's becoming very difficult now for workers at the bottom of the ladder to aspire to better paid and more satisfying middle ranking jobs in the manufacturing sector or to do an apprenticeship, become qualified tradespeople and move into jobs that were once highly desirable," Professor Chris Warhurst said.

Along with the demise of manufacturing, Professor Warhurst says job quality has been severely eroded by a decline in the trade union movement which once ensured that jobs were protected and that working conditions, training, wages levels and opportunities for career development were maintained.

The recent 'Expert Conference on Job Quality in Australia' hosted by the University of Sydney Business School, will attempt to identify ways that federal and state governments can address the decline in job quality.

A guest speaker at the conference and a leading US expert on employment and job quality, University of North Carolina's Professor of Sociology, Dr Arne Kalleberg, warns that Australia could follow the US, where a quarter of those who work full-time earn less than the poverty level for a family of four.

"Many of the jobs that now exist in the US are bad jobs, paying low wages, offering few benefits, and providing workers with little flexibility and satisfaction," Professor Kalleberg who is the author of the recently published Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Employment Systems in the United States, said.

"With the decline of manufacturing in the US, most of the new jobs created in the past few years are in low-wage occupations and industries such as retail sales, food preparation and personal and home health care aides," he said.

"In recent decades, the focus has shifted away from job quality to job quantity and too many people are now in work that is precarious, insecure and unable to provide a decent standard of living," the Business School's Dr Angela Knox, said.

"Just as in the last big economic downturn in the 1970s, many countries have now shifted their emphasis from generating better jobs to simply creating any jobs. It's job creation, not job quality that's the focus," Dr Knox said.

"This approach was flawed in the 1970s, and it is now, creating neither good jobs nor sustainable jobs. It's a situation we need to avoid in Australia."

Dr Knox says that the overwhelming focus on industrial relations policy has diverted attention away from other equally important levers that should be addressed to create better quality jobs.

"It is now time for government, business and unions to work together to improve education and training and to develop economic and industry conditions that support good jobs," she said.

"Rising employment participation rates in Australia make the quality of work an increasingly important policy focus," Professor Warhurst added.

"Job quality can affect general life satisfaction, health and family life as well as productivity, turnover rates and absenteeism."

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Lou Furbadamo | Friday, October 12, 2012, 9:29 AM
What an encouraging article to read! Not because it’s bearer of good news, because it’s probably as bad an industry & worker news, you’d want to hear. But because someone else in this country is confronting industry reality, grasping the obvious problems & trying to alert Australia to the grave risks & minimise the impact. Particularly, when it runs against popular, government and select high level adviser glowing assessments, white paper plans & nonsense hype. As expected it’s objective researchers, closer to the cold face, with little booty or empire to loose, confirming the truth. Rather than our devious, high flying, “drips under pressure, crap advisers & dishonest Pollies”. It’s the sad reality of ongoing destructive deindustrialisation, which I’ve been warning about at length, so it’s good to finally see researchers backing up anecdotal & industrial experience. But, I’d hardly call it research, cause in manufacturing, you only have to open your eyes, to see what’s terminally going on! Their commendation is more for documenting and having the courage & fortitude to present the deplorable malaise & riskily expose the useless government & union culpability! Despite numerous lengthy warning notes, pollies & away with the fairies advisers & policy makers, won’t accept the unsavoury timely warnings & proper advice. And are bipartisan continuing with this Global Free trade & Asian Century, con - exporting our manufacturing to cheap offshore dives & sweatshops! Ala’ our soon to be released Dr. Boom Boom‘s, surely treacherous Yellow, White paper on Manufacturing Industry Embracing & being Industry Shafted by the Asian Century. Gorily but efficiently, to minimise “their Crime & resultant Cumulative pain”! Rather than mongrelly spend billions on a painfully slow Industry Death Plan, to “deliberately do in” Aussies out of decent, gainful employment and a productive future, in order to avoid expensive support subsidies & grants to remaining industry. Why not instead, spend a few hundred thousands, on sharp, cheap Asian doomsday token gift knives, for all unfortunate workers. With sorry instructions, to slice along the veins for quicker, more humane, less painful working livelihood ends! Or, if discarded workers are resigned to the Asian Century onslaught, Traditional Communal Harakiri! for more impact & desperation statement? Because to insensitively, recklessly pursue flawed & damned current & proposed policies, will see heartless retrenchments & unemployment pain skyrocket. And the quality & satisfaction of most, but political and select bureaucratic jobs, will inevitably reduce to dregs, scraps, poor paying discarded status. The Kalleberg “Polarized and Precarious Employment System” is, inherently long term unstable, because as the average wealth generation of the country diminishes, so to will the size & magnitude of the wealth pool, that the cardinal “top feeders” can draw their economic sustenance & wealth from. Invariably, deindustrialisation, progressively retards technology, innovation, confidence & opportunity and weakens the economy & standards to 2nd rate & in theory, if the fabric of society is sufficiently degenerated, to third world poverty status. Today, the median trend in Australian standard of living and work options, productivity, flexibility, satisfaction & variety is lower than it was ten years ago? And just as the US is continuing towards Obama Basket Case State. So too, will Australia approach Furbo peddled “Banananana Republica”, if we continue to idiotically Labor stuff up, waste & naively poorly follow suit, regardless of natural wealth. Cheers, and is it sexist or misogynist, to future talk in terms “Regina Juliar Banananana Rossa. Australis”? Founding Father Banana Planter, Furbo!