What’s missing in Working Lives

Unlike last year, the release of the 2008 Australia at Work report was unaccompanied by claims that rude Ministerial words amounted to threats to accademic freedom. By contrast, the welcoming of the Working Lives report by Julia Gillard was part of the generally uncritical response that the authors must have been hoping for last year.

Though like last year there is some interesting material in the report, the mix of data and advocacy – and the bills being partly picked up by the union movement – inevitably raises suspicions, not about the veracity of what is there, but about what has been omitted.

In Clive Hamilton mode, the Working Lives authors are keen to send the regulators in to make us go home earlier from work. But ABS reports showing that average full-time working hours and the proportions of workers spending more than 50 hours at week have been declining since 2003 are brushed off:

Despite claims of a downward trend, since the ABS has been collecting usual hours data in 2001, average usual hours have remained between 44 and 45 hours per week.

This number is not easily extracted from the source given, and surely evidence that the labour market is self-adjusting downwards needs careful examination, and if it is misleading we should be given detailed reasons as to why this is the case.

The most important feature of Australia at Work is that it interviews the same people each year, highly desirable when measuring dynamic things like the labour market. Yet very little of Working Lives reports on how individuals changed, rather than how the sample as a whole changed between 2007 and 2008. Is this because the scare numbers repeated in the media don’t look so bad when taken over time?

As HILDA research has shown (Ppt), over the 2001-2005 period nearly 40% of their sample had worked 50 hours a week or more in at least one year, but only 8% did so in every year of the survey. HILDA shows that if people have a problem such as working too many hours they usually fix it themselves – which counts against the regulatory intervention favoured by the Australia at Work authors.

And of course there is the usual absence of serious consideration of the trade-offs that need to be made. The Working Lives authors don’t like long hours at work, but don’t offer practical solutions for employers with ups and downs in the volume of work. Without confidence that the level of work is permanently higher, employers will be reluctant to take on new staff – especially if tighter employment security laws make it cumbersome to get rid of them later. The more obvious solution is casual or contract labour, but the Australia at Work authors don’t much approve of either, due to lower employment security. Yet much work doesn’t just go away – there are real consequences if it is not done. These consequences have to be factored into the trade-offs.

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