Australia’s surprisingly secure workers, part 3

Not all the data reported in Australia@Work follows the union line. The unions have persistently argued that WorkChoices reduces job security. For example, in the ACTU’s one year on report on WorkChoices, released in March this year, Sharran Burrow claimed:

Job security for Australian workers has been eroded – with 3,761,000 Australian workers employed in businesses with less than 100 staff having lost any protection from being unfairly dismissed.

Yet as I have argued in the past, there is little evidence that variations in employment law have much impact on how likely someone is to be dismissed. While statutes may make getting rid of unnecessary or incompetent employees more time-consuming and costly, it has nearly always been possible. Even where sacking is legally difficult, employers can encourage ‘voluntary’ departures by giving unwanted employees boring work, or treating them poorly.

In Australia@Work, employees were asked to agree or disagree with the statement that:

There is a good chance that I will lose my job or be retrenched within the next twelve months.

About 9% agreed or strongly agreed. I can’t find an exact pre-WorkChoices comparison point, but neither of the two 2005 surveys I have found suggest that things have deteriorated since. The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes asked:

To what extent, if at all, do you worry about the possibility of losing your job?

5.6% worried a great deal, and 13.8% worried to some extent.

Roy Morgan Research asked:

Do you think your present job is safe, or do you think there’s a chance you may become unemployed?

15% said that they though there was a chance that they would become unemployed.

These questions do prompt slightly different considerations. It is possible to worry about job loss without thinking it is likely in the next twelve months (the preceding Morgan question had mentioned 12 months, so that is the likely time frame for their respondents). And people can worry about becoming unemployed without thinking that they will be sacked, such as leaving a job voluntarily and then not being able to find another one. But overall the Australia@Work data is consistent with job security, both objectively and subjectively, being at or near the highest levels since statistics started being collected.

Unfortunately, the Australia@Work report does not break subjective job security down by employer size, which would be interesting as unfair dismissal laws do not apply in workplaces with fewer than 100 employees (though they do have data on employer size; given the political agenda being pushed by John Buchanan and colleagues I will take a guess that they have calculated the figure and it did not produce the expected result).

They do however break the data down by skill level. Unsurprisingly, the greater your skill level the less likely you are to think that your job is threatened. Those most worried about about job loss are those who had been unemployed in March 2006 (17.6%). This is probably due to a mix of objective factors – as unemployment is correlated with weak skills – and subjective factors, with the well-being research suggesting that unemployment can have a ‘scarring’ effect on the minds of the previously unemployed even after they have returned to work.

Overall though, as with previous job security research, Australia@Work confirms that the vast majority of workers feel secure in their jobs. This is not because the law protects them. It is because employers need them.

5 thoughts on “Australia’s surprisingly secure workers, part 3

  1. I think I’ve brought this up before, but it would be interesting to know how this relates to low demand but neccesary jobs. In this respect, a really interesting thing to look at would be 18 year olds about to go to uni/training, rather than people in jobs. I’d like to what extent people do different courses or try to get into different industries based on the likely perceived job security before they actually get the jobs. It seems to me this is a really important category, as people may simply avoid jobs with perceived low security, or at least certain types of people may avoid these jobs. Thus, whilst you might not have any change in mean percieved job security, there might be long terms changes that are meaningful. In this case, people may simply avoid low demand professions because the risk of job insecurity is too great.

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  2. As I’ve noted elsewhere, there have been several studies in recent years that point to average length of job tenure increasing slightly over the past few decades – see, for example this paper by one of the country’s best known labour economists. Note this is directly contrary to perceptions about “casualisation”.

    Unfair dismissal legislation seems to have done little or nothing to affect this long-run trend, so I doubt that its removal would have much effect on it either.

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  3. The ‘casualisation’ mythology is really interesting (or I find it so, anyway). The arguments you see tend to link together 1) manufacturing has declined and services increased as a share of the economy, 2) service industries provide part-time, and casual work, 3) part-time and casual work is short-term and exploitative (McJobs)…
    Also links into sort of ‘offended masculinity’… this argument even comes from female writers at times, the concern that ‘working class men’ cannot ‘support their families’ in the modern economy due to casualisation etc.
    Some of it also I think comes from willful blindness – people who have a secular fundamentalist belief in unions and believe that manufacturing workers are more heavily unionised than service workers, develop themselves a secular fundamentalist belief that manufacturing is somehow morally superior to services. Ties into Marxism and idealism about the proles too I guess.
    It’s fascinating how many people who would insist they are passionately in favour of equal rights for women, feminism etc will then turn around and complain that ‘working men’ can no longer ‘support their families’ and this is a VERY VERY bad thing. And women wanting to work part-time and are able to in the modern economy – that is also a VERY VERY bad thing.
    This comment is something of a stream of consciousness, but I hope what I’m trying to get across is clear.

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  4. Conrad – I’m sure there is self-selection into jobs. It’s why familist arguments about people working ‘unsocial’ hours often don’t fit with the perceptions of those workers, because people who want to work 9 to 5 only don’t work in retail, hospitality or other industries where non-standard hours are routine.

    ‘Casual’ can be a misleading term. It is usually inferred from workers not having paid annual or sick leave. But many casuals are in fact on-going employees, often with fairly consistent hours (that was my experience as a ‘casual’ at Myer for six years as a student). For young, healthy workers who don’t get sick very often they are often better off taking the casual loading than having sick leave. For people who don’t work or study full-time anyway annual leave is less likely to be a priority. Despite being a ‘casual’, I was not concerned about job security. Indeed, though I resigned to go on backpacking trip to Europe they gave me my job back when I returned after 3 months.

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