Voices From Working Australia
Address to the National Press Club, Canberra
By Ged Kearney, President, Australian Council of Trade Unions
Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Thank you for that welcome.

I would like to recognise the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today – the Ngunnawal and Ngambri  people – and pay my respects to elders past and present.

It is good to see so many friends and colleagues here today. I would particularly like to acknowledge the Secretary of the ACTU, Jeff Lawrence, fellow unionists and workers, and representatives of business and government. And of course, our friends in the media, in the Press Gallery.

I last spoke here almost a year ago about my belief in the importance of the union movement, of collective action and of providing a voice for Australia’s working people.

Since then we’ve had a number of bitter and divisive debates in Australia, none more so than climate change. Overseas, there have been popular uprisings in the Arab World – where free independent unions have been at the forefront of democratic movements, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia.  

Debt and recession hangs over the USA and much of Europe, feeding growing economic uncertainty in Australia, and we have seen unrest on the streets of major cities in England and Greece.

When I spoke here last year, I announced the ACTU’s plans to conduct a workers’ census. I said this would be the biggest and most comprehensive survey of the views of union members ever undertaken in this country.

It would provide a new way for workers to have a say in the future agenda of the union movement, and to help shape our policies and campaigns.

This is something I passionately believe in. The union movement must be prepared to consult widely and democratically with its members. It must give them a voice, and it must be prepared to listen, and respond, to what workers are saying.

With the Census, we have delivered on this commitment.

We have now received and collated the views of about 42,000 workers, from shop assistants to sky diving instructors who represent the diversity of the union movement’s 1.8 million members.

Today, I want to publicly release the results of this “census”. Consider this a snapshot of working life in 2011. These are the concerns and aspirations of the bulk of Australian society, the people driving our economy, well outside of the Canberra “Beltway”.

For them, what matters are not esoteric economic arguments or political gamesmanship, but tangible things like good wages and conditions, dignity and respect at work, time with their family and friends, and the daily struggle of making ends meet.

The Working Australia Census gives those workers a voice, and it is my privilege to be able to report to you today what they are saying.

The union movement today
Negative coverage of the union movement either paints it as a declining force, or as a militant body which represents a clear and present danger to productivity and economic growth.

I take it as a compliment that our opponents cannot decide between those two contradictory views.
There is no other movement with the reach and the connection to the concerns of ordinary Australians than the union movement.

This reach goes far beyond our nearly 2 million members. The achievements of unions in negotiating better pay and conditions, safer workplaces, secure jobs, and much more impacts on millions more workers and their families.

In an age where people are no longer “joiners”, our movement and its network of over 100,000 representatives in workplaces across Australia is still defending the rights to a safe workplace and a fair day’s pay.

It is interesting that one of the key findings of our Census was that union members do not see our role solely as being guardians of pay and conditions.

They believe that unions have a wider role to play in society.

That we should be campaigning more broadly to preserve and advance equality in Australia and to maintain the social infrastructure which has been built up over this nation’s history.

The union movement fought for aged pensions, Medicare, decent superannuation and maternity leave.

We must fight to protect and extend this legacy.

Regardless of who forms the Government, our members want us to ensure that their concerns are at the center of national debate, and that policies are judged by how they match up with the interests of working people and their families.

This means a society where “national prosperity” reflects the interests of working people, and where opportunity and reward for effort are supported by a strong safety net and a genuine compassion for the vulnerable.

Where our economic growth can come from innovative improvements to productivity, not simply cutting wages or forcing people to work longer hours.

But despite the questions raised by the Global Financial Crisis, we still live in a nation where certain orthodoxies of business are not questioned, where the ACCI and the BCA are seen as neutral commentators on the economy not the sectional, vested interests that they are.

We are living in an Australia that is dictated by the interests of business, and where the tenor of media coverage and debate is dominated by unquestioned assumptions about the economy.

Workers’ views have been marginalised; social equity and community have been replaced as cardinal virtues by aspiration and material wealth.

This is constantly misrepresented by some media outlets, but Australian unions are committed to ongoing economic reform.

The Hawke-Keating reforms were successful because there was a genuine policy debate that involved all interests.

The great economic reforms of the 1980s and early-1990s were achieved because of the engagement of the union movement at the time. Unions were a critical partner in economic changes that would have big impacts on working people and our national prosperity.

Our concerns are that by increasingly representing just narrow corporate interests, institutions like the Reserve Bank and Productivity Commission risk not only becoming aloof from the concerns of working Australians, but losing the confidence of the broader community.

Often, when I read the latest story or column in the papers about how productivity growth is apparently too slow, or workplaces lack flexibility, I wonder: what is the missing part of the equation?

It is workers, for whom productivity isn’t an abstract expression, but all too-often means unpaid hours, phone calls out of work and doing more for less; for whom flexibility is actually a code for giving employers the ability to cut hours, or even sack you, when it suits them.

When did the profit margins of big companies become the sole economic indicator?

Why have we allowed multinational mining companies to write our tax laws for us?

Why is it that a fall in productivity is always the fault of the workers, never of poor management decisions, or a lack of investment?

Why is no one linking productivity issues to the sustained under-investment in tertiary and vocational education over recent decades?

Why is it that insecure work, reduced pay and conditions, and attacks on the power to bargain collectively are seen as the only way we can compete internationally?

Why is it that we measure a government’s performance by the size of the handout or tax cut it gives us, not by what it builds for the common use?

Why is a budget surplus considered the Holy Grail of economic responsibility?

It is with this backdrop that we committed to the Working Australia Census, to give workers a voice.

The efforts and commitment of the Australian workforce is too often undervalued.

It is in this environment that unions fight to ensure the voice of the worker is heard and that policies that recognise the difficulties of ordinary life are implemented.

I’m proud of the people who make up Australian unions. I’ve always known our members were fantastic, committed people. The Census confirms this. Union members are good people. They are community people. Half of them are volunteers outside of work, compared with a third of the general population.

They are dedicated to their jobs and hard-working. Almost 40% told us the main reason they have remained in their current job is because they feel it allows them to contribute positively to the community.

The blue-collar base of the union movement remains strong, but there is a shift in overall membership towards female workers in jobs like teaching, nursing, the community sector and the public service. Twenty years ago about one in three union members was a woman.

Now, our gender split is close to fifty-fifty, and in 2010, for the first time union density among women was higher than for men. The Census reflects these changes.

The Working Australia Census tells us that of union members, 51% are earning between $40,000 and $80,000 a year, and 52% are in households which earn less than $100,000 a year.

Forget the phony debate about whether a family earning $150,000 is typical – the median income of Australian full-time workers is $54,750.

It is often forgotten by people in the media how low these average incomes are, how deeply cost of living pressures sit on working households and how much their quality of life depends on public investment in critical areas like health and education.

The 21st century workplace
The Voices from Working Australia report paints a picture of a 21st century workplace that is imposing a different and more complex set of demands on workers.

For some people, work is less physically demanding but there are new stresses and pressures.

The trend in recent years is for an increase in overtime, often unpaid.

Technology has incredible benefits, but it has increased the expectation that workers are always available to employers.

The Australia Institute’s research has found that Australians are working the longest hours of any developed country.

The Working Australia Census backs this up:

  • It found that 61 per cent are working more hours than they are paid for
  • 73 per cent are regularly contacted outside of work hours about their job
  • 58 per cent have paid for work-related expenses and not been compensated
  • Work is bleeding into people’s home lives, and we do not have the means of recognising or dealing with this in a way that suits workers.

    Instead we have an increase in stress, and insecurity.

    This is particularly the case for people in casual jobs, who fear they will lose shifts if they do not comply.

    Business is shifting more and more financial risk and responsibility onto the workforce.

    We have a “Productivity Squeeze” which means that we are achieving productivity through unpaid work and greater pressure on workers.

    We are not doing it through investing in upgrading our infrastructure or the level of education in our community.

    This should be a wake up call at a time when we are saturated with urging from employer and business groups about the need to effectively take away more rights and reduce pay and conditions to allegedly improve productivity and flexibility.

    Rarely do we hear from the millions of Australian workers what productivity and flexibility mean to them and their lives. The Census shows they are not abstract terms.

    What workers told us was that the 38 hour week is often an aspiration, not a reality, while the idea of working overtime means longer hours for no extra pay.

    They’ve told us that when they want to spend time with their family on weekends, they have to juggle extra work commitments, that a night in is frequently a prelude to homework for the next day, and for many, the job for life has been replaced by a series of short and insecure contracts.

    The monotonous mantra from business that the Fair Work Act is somehow dragging down productivity not only conveniently ignores that productivity growth fell during the Howard Government – and especially during the WorkChoices era – but is another example of business trying to shift the blame elsewhere.

    But the script has been sent out, and a range of business figures are singing from the same sheet. It’s very easy for the likes of Don Argus or Michael Chaney to pontificate from their soapbox about how an “inflexible” labour market is the cause of Australia’s slow productivity growth.

    But I challenge them to look a working mum in the face, someone who is juggling two casual jobs, who works on the weekend when her husband can look after the kids just for that little bit extra.

    I challenge Don Argus to look in the face of someone who is on a starting retail wage of $17 an hour, and say: “you’re to blame – and by the way, we’ve decided to cut your wages, and we want you to work a few extra hours on the weekend, and we’re not going to pay you any more for them.” Because that’s what they really mean when they talk about “freeing up the labour market”.

    Despite corporate fear-mongering, the much-feared “wages breakout” or “wages explosion” never seems to happen.

    What has happened is that wages have fallen behind the cost of living, and have fallen compared to profits as a share of the economy.

    The Working Australia Census tells us a quarter of workers have been working for the same employer for 15 years.

    But despite this loyalty it also found that a third of workers see senior management as having no real understanding of their business, and no plan for the future. This is a disturbing finding. It suggests also that company managements are often ignoring some of the most innovative and creative people in their organisation, people who could help create productivity solutions: the workers.

    The idea that we can only compete internationally by reducing wages and conditions is a dangerous one.

    The USA has a far lower minimum wage than Australia, yet is currently battling an unemployment rate stuck at almost 10 per cent.

    The scorched-earth economic approach – that low wages leads to more jobs – has been totally discredited by the US recession.

    The café-owner who believes abolishing penalty rates is the key to making his business more profitable forgets that, not only do workers need that money to pay rent and bills, but that lower wages mean that people have less to spend on discretionary items like their morning coffee.

    No-one wins from a race to the bottom.

    Insecure Work/workplace stress
    The Working Australia Census has also confirmed the existence of three groups of workers under particular stress.

    One, we know as the ‘Sandwich Generation’. This is a group of women, aged 45-54 who care for children and elderly parents, while needing to work full-time to make ends meet. These women are hard workers, not only at home and their place of employment, but in their communities.

    It is their unpaid caring work that allows our welfare systems to function. But they are increasingly feeling the pressure of being pulled between responsibilities.

  • One in six have two or more jobs, often with casual hours that they must fit around their other commitments.
  • Almost half were dissatisfied with their workload and their work/life balance.
  • 44 per cent did not feel comfortable taking time off to attend to caring responsibilities, and nine out of 10 had gone to work while sick, or when someone they cared for was sick.
  • One in two were finding it difficult to get by on their current household income.
  • Not only do we continue to expect women to take on the lion’s share of caring responsibilities, but increased workforce participation has added to their load.

    As one woman told us: “Being a carer for my elderly mother I need to take time off regularly. I find employers say they understand but in the long term they just see you as a burden.”

    This group is just one example of why unions will continue to advocate for better work/life outcomes, more flexible working arrangements, and in particular, a right to carer’s leave to look after elderly relations, or adult children.

    The second group identified by the Census is the ‘Forgotten Blokes’: a group of men on the edge of the labour market.

    They are men aged between 45-64, who are looking for work. They generally have a qualification, but are no longer able to find regular, permanent employment. Often the industry where they started their working life has disappeared.

    This is particularly pertinent given the crisis that Australian manufacturing is currently going through.
    The reasons they gave for not finding work were:

  • 52 per cent said employers thought they were too old
  • A quarter said because there were too many applicants for the available jobs
  • And one in ten, because they did not have the required education, training or skills
  • Some of these stories are heart-rending. One man told us that after going “a bit deaf”, he was forced into retirement “on grounds of ill-health”.

    “I have a good mind, current qualifications (I’m still studying) and a good work ethic,” he said.

    “I do want to work, but there is no doubt in my mind that age discrimination is alive and flourishing in Australia.”

    Both these groups present challenges to workforce participation. For these women, it is about finding the right balance between a secure income and their family life; for these men, it is about ensuring they are not left behind by industry changes, and making skills and training something that happens continually, so that a secure and fulfilling job remains an option as they hit middle-age.

    The Census results also show that for many workers, job security is a primary concern.

    One-in-five respondents ranked job security as one of their top three issues at work.

    A third group we identified was “Insecure Youth” – Generation Y workers in low paid, insecure jobs. These workers, under 25, who are employed and financially independent from their parents, demonstrate that being young doesn’t mean being carefree.

    More than 1 in 3 of them were in insecure work, and nearly 40% wanted more paid hours.  They told us of experiencing significant financial stress, and have key concerns about wages, cost of living and especially housing affordability.  As one of these workers told us:

    “I work in three different casual jobs, two of which are through different labour hire companies.

    “Some weeks I work nearly 60 hours, others only 7.5 hours or not at all. I enjoy construction work, yet local builders only want workers on ABNs which I refuse because it’s illegal and immoral.

    “I also have experience as a short-order cook but restaurants and fast food joints will hire teenagers instead of me, even for the most menial of kitchen duties.”

    Our young people deserve better than this.

    The most striking story of the workforce in Australia in the last two decades has been a massive move away from secure work.

    Union members who completed the Census are much more likely to have a permanent job. But in the rest of the economy, the situation is bleaker.

    Today, almost half of all Australian workers are engaged as casuals, on fixed term contracts, labour hire, and other forms of non-permanent employment.

    This is over 4 million workers. Casualisation is a global phenomenon, but we “lead” the world.  In the OECD, only Spain, with a high proportion of seasonal work in agriculture, outranks Australia.

    In hospitality, two-thirds of employees are casual. Forty per cent of all employees in the retail industry are casuals.

    Insecure work is spreading into areas where families previously had the security of a permanent job.

    A primary school teacher is engaged on rolling one year fixed contracts with no income over the long summer break and no guarantee of work the following year.

    A labour hire worker in a warehouse in Melbourne has performed the same work as his workmate beside him for six months but still receives lower pay, inferior entitlements and no job security.

    A home care worker is engaged on a part-time casual basis but with no predictability as to weekly hours of work or income.

    While this kind of work suits some people, for the majority it is something they put up with just to get a place in the workforce.

    The fact is that many insecure workers – whether casuals, contractors, fixed-term or labour hire workers – would prefer more secure and better quality jobs.

    Shortly, the ACTU will be launching a new national campaign to address the crisis of insecure work.

    We want to ensure that non-permanent employment exists only where it is absolutely necessary, or when it genuinely offers benefits for both employer and employee, and is properly rewarded.

    We do not want to see it continue to be used as a way of undermining pay and conditions and shifting the risk burden from business-owners to workers.

    Armed with the findings of the Working Australia Census, Australian unions are well-equipped to continue to independently represent working people and their families, and embark on a new policy agenda.

    Beyond the workplace, there is much to do.

    The ACTU believes next month’s tax forum is an opportunity to ensure that our tax system reflects our values of equality and fairness.

    A progressive tax system is not just a means of sharing wealth, it’s primary purpose is to fund the infrastructure and services that working Australians rely on and that are the measure of a civilised society.

    Too often “tax reform” is simply seen as cutting the top rates of personal tax and company tax, the position pushed by business and corporate interests.

    This might be news to that narrow, self-interested group, Australians aren’t clamouring for a reduction in the size of government, but for an increase in the quality of public services.

    The ACTU will advocate for a tax system that promotes equity and removes disincentives that stop people from entering the workforce. Because the structure of the tax system and how government spending is directed is a reflection of the type of society we aspire to be.

    With Your Rights At Work, we established a campaigning infrastructure that is suited to the 21st century. We know that to achieve change, it is not enough simply to rely on political relationships.

    We know that there are vested interests in our society, the business community, who have almost limitless financial reserves that buys them political clout.

    But they lack one essential ingredient. They do not represent mainstream Australia.

    They cannot re-engineer the political DNA of the Australian people to remove our egalitarian values and sense of community.  

    Big business is gearing up to attack and tear down everything that has occurred in the past few years to restore a sense of justice and rights at work. The Liberal Party is champing at the bit to join them.

    Working people know this and they want us to speak up and act.

    Now is not the time to be timid.

    Working Australians want us to tell their side of the story.

    They listen to the economic success stories of big business and they don’t see themselves reflected.

    They want us to tell it like it is for them in their day to day struggles to work, raise children, look after their elders, and lead lives of dignity and meaning among all the challenges that we know are part of the modern workplace.

    Millions of people don’t buy into the economic orthodoxy that puts the market ahead of the wellbeing of a society.

    These people want us to act. They want us to embark on a bold, forward thinking and far reaching policy agenda that addresses their issues.

    What we say and what we do on their behalf might not be popular with business or their cheer squad in the Parliament.

    But, contrary to what they might believe, they don’t own the economic and social agenda of this country.

    We just sometimes struggle to hear working Australians, because they lack the resources and influence of the big end of town.

    This is what they have always asked us to do.

    To speak, to act and to fight on their behalf. And as they have shown time and time again, when we need them to stand up alongside us, they will be there.