Oh what a feeling, no future!
We throw away last season’s clothes, older-model cars and mobile phones that are out of date. But is our disposable society starting to throw away workers?
Last week Toyota laid off 350 workers from its Altona plant in Melbourne. It did so in a way that showed a total disrespect for their dignity as people. I accept that it may have been necessary for Toyota to reduce its workforce – times are tough for manufacturing – but I do not accept that it was necessary to publicly humiliate them.
I do not accept it was necessary to frogmarch employees out of the building, in front of TV cameras. I do not accept it was necessary to label the retrenched workers as underperformers without right of reply. I question why so many members who had roles with their union were retrenched.
Toyota will have a lot of work to do to convince its remaining staff that it has their interests at heart, and improve morale. Companies that belittle their workforce in public aren’t going to achieve anything.
But there’s a bigger story here. When the media coverage has died down, 350 people, many with families and mortgages, will be left to work out what to do with the rest of their working lives. This is a story that is happening all over Australia, especially in manufacturing, and especially to older men.
Being thrown out of work is a difficult experience for anyone, but for those with specialised skills, who have been in the one industry their whole life, it can be a massive and damaging change.
In 2005 Mitsubishi laid off workers at its Lonsdale Plant in South Australia. Many were long-term employees, often with no skills outside manufacturing and few formal qualifications. A few years later, research by academics and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union found that only 37 per cent were in permanent employment, and 70 per cent of those in casual employment wanted full-time work.
The story of this group was of people whose skills were once in demand, being left behind and drifting in a world of temporary, semi-skilled or unskilled work. I call this group “The forgotten blokes”, men who can’t get the work they want, because the careers they trained for are disappearing, but who are perceived as too old to contribute.
Too many are ending up on the Disability Support Pension, where they stay until they turn 65 and go onto the Aged Pension. A huge amount of ability, experience and willingness to work is being wasted. It’s not a problem that just affects older men either. The world has changed hugely in the last 30 years. The idea that people will have one job for life, or even work in the same industry is gone.
The question is how do we prepare people for this world? How do we make sure that workers remain employable throughout their lives, and don’t end up as disposable?
Although our official unemployment figure is 5.2 per cent, that does not include the under-employment figure of around 7 per cent, and the fact that the average underemployed person wants to work an extra 15 hours each week.
Many workers move from unemployment, to underemployment, to temporary low-wage jobs, and back to unemployment again, without ever being able to save enough money to stay ahead or buy time to upgrade their skills. At the same time business is importing workers on 457 visas, because we have failed to train enough Australians in key skills.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe is conducting an inquiry on behalf of the ACTU into the effects of insecure work on Australia. Last week he spoke at the Press Club about the development of a “core” and a “periphery” in the Australian workforce.
Workers in the core, who have permanent positions or in-demand skills, reap the benefits of a flexibility that allows them to work in different jobs, in different countries, shaping their careers to suit themselves.
Meanwhile workers in the periphery, stuck in a succession of insecure, low-paid jobs, experience a “flexibility” that sees them not knowing from one week to the next how many hours they’ll work, and having to juggle their family responsibilities around work.
All evidence shows that the size of the insecure workforce on the periphery is growing, and that life on the periphery is not temporary, it’s permanent. The workforce is becoming more disposable.
Things like casual work, the rise in short-term contracts and use of labour hire, reflect the fact that a worker is more likely to be hired just to do a specific task, rather than as a long-term part of the business.
This may improve profits in the short-term, but it shifts a huge burden of stress and insecurity on to lower-paid workers. As well, these workers are not going to get any real improvement to their skills, at a time when technology is changing rapidly.
As a society, we need to think about the long-term impact of casualisation on our skills base, and what that means for the opportunities of thousands of Australians. We are entering an age where Australia will face intense competition from other countries, at a time where technology is changing faster than ever.
How do we compete in the long-term if we do not encourage Australian workers to increase their skills and prepare themselves for new economy? We will never be able to compete with China and India on price, so we have to do it on the quality of what we produce, and the skills of our citizens.
Governments, businesses and unions need to work together to create better ways for people to train throughout their lives, and make sure that we invest in our most valuable asset – our people. We need to encourage a culture of continual learning that keeps us competitive, and makes sure as many Australians as possible get a chance at the fulfilling careers of the 21st century.
Let’s keep the scrapheap for cars, phones and clothes – not people.
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