A left-familist misreading of the data?

The left-familists were given free run by the Fairfax papers over the weekend in responding to the ABS’s latest report on working time arrangements.

The SMH article opened with the statement that

THE claim that working hours are becoming more family-friendly is a myth, new figures suggest, with Australian workers having less opportunity to negotiate flexible work arrangements than they did the best part of a decade ago.

Of course there is no such myth; we’ve been endlessly told the opposite by the advocates of more labour market regulation.

The SMH‘s claim that ‘the number of workers who negotiated an agreement for flexible hours with the boss – either formally or informally – fell from 40 per cent to about 30 per cent’ looks like it might be a misreading of the statistics or coming from a change in the question or both.

The explanatory notes in the 2009 edition say that the data item, “‘Whether had a formal system of working flexible hours’ presented in the 2006 publication has been replaced with ‘Whether had an agreement with employer to work flexible hours’ in this publication.”

However, both surveys have a line item ‘had an agreement to work flexible hours’, which shows an increase from 23% in 2006 to 31% in 2009. The 40% the SMH refers to appears under a general heading to do with flexible earnings, but actually refers to having some say in start and finish times. That too is higher in 2009, 41.5% (and presented in a different part of the table).

Part of this might spring from confusion about what constitutes ‘flexible hours’. About 10% of employees have employers who have been flexible with normal working arrangements on starting and finishing times, but these times are fixed once negotiated (eg I have a colleague who arrives and leaves early each day, to coordinate childcare). Another 27% of employees have flexibility day to day.

It looks to me like the ABS shows the reverse of what the SMH claims and which left-familists Sharan Burrrow and Ian Campbell denounce. Such an increase in flexible arrangements may be due to the downturn, with employers more willing to give staff time off when there is less work to do.

What labour market statistics generally show is that the ‘fundamentals’ of industry structure, the business cycle, and the nature of the labour force are far more important than the industrial relations system. These explain why WorkChoices did not have the disadvantages claimed by the ACTU, and ‘Fair Work’ will not in itself create a very different work-life balance.

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