WorkChoices and work-life balance

I am copping some flak for suggesting that falling divorce rates are inconsistent with left-familist complaints that WorkChoices undermine the family. It is certainly true that divorce rates are the most extreme indicator of family stresses, and would not pick up lesser harms to families. But are any indicators at all matching left-familist claims?

Commenter Michael Kalecki suggests that:

Work can be bad for families without divorce coming into it. An obligation to work longer hours for example.

That is true, but are people working longer hours since WorkChoices came into effect? Australian Social Trends 2008, published by the ABS, reports that they are not.

In 2005, the year before WorkChoices started, the average full-time employee spent 40.6 hours per week at work. By 2007 it had dropped to 39.4 hours – the lowest it has been since 1986, back in the days before any significant labour market deregulation. Part-timers also worked less, on average – though the drop for them was only small, from 16.2 hours to 16.1 hours.

What about full-time employees working more than 50 hours per week? This number is also trending down, from 23.8% in 2005 to 21.6% in 2007. I can only find trend data going back to 1994, but this is the lowest number since then.

The left-familists assume that employees are powerless in the face of employers indifferent to their other obligations, and that only regulation and unions can protect employees. In reality, the market functions much more effectively than that. As the HILDA data shows, employees rarely experience long-term dissatisfaction with work-life balance. Their job changes or they change their job.

21 thoughts on “WorkChoices and work-life balance

  1. Why are you surprised Andrew? Our lefty friends don’t do well when confronted by evidence. I do seem to remember that WorkChoices apparently was bad for familes. Indeed Kevin Rudd told us the Hayekian experiement (code, I think, for the Howard era) undermined traditional structures such as the family. (No, Homer, Rudd never actually used the phrase “Hayekian experiement”).

    You really should put Michael in scare quotes “Michael Kalecki”.


  2. “left-familist”

    Name calling undermines any argument. Instead of trying to put points of view in a box it would be more helpful to understand them.


  3. Charles – ‘Familist’ is a term found in the literature – Barbara Pocock uses it in her book The Labour Market Ate My Babies. It seems a reasonable term for those whose political agenda is linked to supporting the family as a unit. ‘Left-familism’ is to distinguish supporting the family via labour market laws from the right-familism of the Howard government, not ‘name calling’.


  4. Given that the unemployment rate fell over 2005 to 2007 from about 5% to 4.3%, the AST data suggests a win-win outcome from a left-familist perspective – jobless people getting work and employed people working fewer hours. Of course, this whole argument assumes that people don’t actually want to work longer hours.


  5. Personally I’d like to be called a ‘left-familist’. It’s like having ‘family values’ but it actually means something half way sensible.

    Is the effect on families of work choices or no work choices likely to be that significant? Surely housing prices, rents and the unemployment rate are far more significant. Even statistical noise in birth rate fluctuations might be bigger.


  6. Pedro’s right. There was simply too much else going on to attribute given macro changes in either direction to Workchoices, specially as the beast wasn’t operational long enough to permeate the labour market.

    Though it’s not as silly as claiming Workchoices boosted productivity (the main justification given by the then government). Not only is the empirics lacking for that, so is the theory.


  7. Pedro is right that WorkChoices would not have had much influence either way, which is why the campaign against it was hyperbole.

    I’m looking forward to the ABS statistics on dismissals later in the year, which I am confident will again contradict fears of large numbers of ‘unfair’ dismissals.


  8. Looks like I’ve read too many right wing blogs where “left-familist” would be passed as an insult. I am fed up with such rubbish and have given up even trying to understand their views.

    My own view is that opposition to “workchoices” had more to do with the young, with a strong economy and maturity you are in a better position to look after yourself.


  9. Charles – I don’t think other right-wing blogs are using the term, indeed Google suggests that I am the only person distinguishing familism into left and right versions.

    Certainly opposition to WorkChoices is due to concerns about the weak, and perhaps the young in particular. But these groups are not likely to be prominent among those working 50+ hours per week.


  10. If workchoices had no effect on either wages or employment then it is hard to argue it had effects elsewhere I would have thought.

    Workchoices was merely about destroying trade Unions


  11. Thanks for the link it was in interesting read.

    If the majority rejected “workchoices” because they felt it was unfair for others, what has working hours got to do with it one way or the other.

    Workchoices was not about working conditions, it was about redistributing industrial power. I think most of us worked that out, didn’t like it, and voted accordingly.


  12. But Charles…. if redistributing industrial power resulted in no observable changes to wages, unemployment, or families, why should we be concerned? In what way is it unfair?


  13. Robert

    If you don’t think the situation was unfair you didn’t have children working in the service industry. In my view children brought down the Liberal government. The kids that needed the protection of an award system had parents and grandparents.

    The counter question is also valid, if redistributing industrial power resulted in no observable changes to wages, unemployment, or families, why destroy a political party to try and achieve it. I would rank the whole exercise as bloody minded stupidity.


  14. What changes have there been for children working in the service industry? I myself am a uni student.

    I don’t know that work choices should have been a priority, but you’re the one expressing outrage about it without being clear about what negative impact it has had.


  15. After a long stint at unemployment last year (I was 17-18 at the time), I got a job with a small grocery store under an AWA. This was after about a dozen applications at larger chains (they definitely pay more, but for some reason it was harder to get a job with any of them) that all led nowhere. And I put the least effort into my application for the smaller store.
    Why are older people so quick to think they can speak for people like me? Why are they so sure I can’t bargain for myself? Or manage my own finances? Why do they think that every shred of economic opportunity that comes our way must be micromanaged by a bunch of vote chasing morons over in Canberra?


  16. Mitch
    I don’t know you from a bar of soap, I listen to my children.

    I was forming the view that just perhaps there needed to be an increase in union power to deal with some of the abuse that occurs in that industry and a long came workchoices.

    The way to deal with unions is to treat your employees with respect, unions become irrelevant and the employees deal with union abuse. For a small business operator ( which I am), the biggest problem with work choices was the removal of award wages. As lot of resources went into providing these guide lines, there is no way a small business has the resources to replicate the work.


  17. “As lot of resources went into providing these guide lines, there is no way a small business has the resources to replicate the work.”

    Why not just pay as little as you can get away with, with individually bargained raises/bonuses and promotions for the employees that stay on and perform well? That way you’re not wasting money paying more than you need to for the many employees who will not stay for very long and won’t come even close to matching their pay in productivity in the meantime. That difference could be better spent either towards your remaining employees, or towards lowering prices for your customers, or a combination of both.

    From my view, Workchoices was designed to make such things possible. And an obvious consequence of lower starting wages is more job opportunities in the first place for Australia’s unemployed. Not surprising, the job figures matched this.

    Not that there weren’t downsides. The legislation itself was a bureaucratic mess, the fairness test more or less defeated the point (and I recently got a letter from the Ombudsman several months since leaving that the Fairness test means I should be paid extra now. Bit late, guys.) I don’t really care that Workchoices is history now, but the campaign against it really was exaggerated.


  18. Have you ever wondered Mitch why peoples get salary increases with time and why trained people can look after themselves. Rest assured it isn’t because they are better at arguing.

    Training costs.

    And that is where work choices disadvantaged both sides, the untrained need protection from those that think like you, the employer needs a bench mark to set the wage and salary for experienced people. The theory behind workchoices only works if markets are perfect, they are not.

    The economy is a complex non linear systems, the simplistic linear arguments advanced by economists can often be a disaster. Work choices is one such example. Fortunately the complexity of the system prevented it being destroyed by simplistic fools.


  19. Charles has a quandary. He’s stuck in that left-wing paradigm that people can’t operate without government structure and the whole system will fall down if there isn’t some master architect at the top running the show i.e. a wise, benevolent, all-knowing and all-seeing government. But at the same time he’s flummoxed at the self-contradictions of left-wing thinking, the fact that government so often fails to be wise or all-knowing, and he ends up being attracted to the consistent logic of the economic rationalists and classical liberalists.

    We know it’s a confusing time, Charles. But keep thinking for yourself and one day you’ll get there!


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