Monday, July 11, 2011

Labour isn't inanimate. We're human.

When Dr Martin Parkinson gave a speech urging a renewed effort to lift the productivity of labour, the subeditors at the ABC knew just what he meant: Treasury secretary says we should work harder. Whoops.

That ain't what he meant. As the old slogan says, improving labour productivity involves "working smarter, not harder". Indeed, increasing productivity requires producing more from the same inputs. So increasing output by increasing labour inputs clearly doesn't do the trick.

The standard way to raise the productivity of labour is to supply workers with more and better machines to work with. But Parkinson is talking about something more demanding, more reforming than this. He wants a renewed round of microeconomic reform.

He's right in saying the rate of improvement in labour productivity has "slowed sharply" since the start of the new century. He argues only part of this is explained by the delay while the mining industry's partially installed production capacity comes on line.

So what kind of reform do we need to buck things up? Well, a lot of people think the answer's obvious. Peter Reith, a former Liberal minister for workplace relations, for instance: "Labour market issues are at the heart of productivity and, in the end, about living standards. Australia's productivity performance has been poor in recent years. We cannot pretend this problem does not exist."

Another Howard government luminary, Peter Costello, would be the first to agree. He once said: "We need a new dose of active, wide-ranging and vigorous industrial relations reform in this country. No single reform would boost productivity in the Australian economy to the same extent."

He said that in 2005, in support of John Howard's Work Choices reforms. But Work Choices is no more. First it was watered down by Howard himself when finally he realised how unpopular it was, then it was further dismantled by Julia Gillard's Fair Work Act. And Tony Abbott promised repeatedly that Work Choices was "dead, buried and cremated".

I suspect a lot of Liberals' consciences are troubling them over Work Choices. They share the belief of Reith and Costello that industrial relations is the one key reform that would fix productivity. They know it's politically difficult, but the Liberals have to stand for something and reversing the Fair Work Act is something worth fighting for.

If the Murdoch press is to be believed, there's mounting disaffection among employers at the way Fair Work has re-regulated the labour market. Union power is back, we read, and strikes and excessive wage settlements are on the way.

I remain to be convinced this is anything more than employers' paranoia. Big wage increases in the mining industry are only to be expected during a mining boom. It's actually the way market forces work to shift labour from declining industries to expanding industries.

It's hard to believe the union monster could be revived. Union membership in the private sector is down to 14 per cent. Strike activity is a fraction of what it used to be and still falling. And though it doesn't prove much (because, in the real world, all else never stays equal), wages are growing at an unworrying 4 per cent annual rate.

But is industrial relations reform the key to restoring our productivity growth? I doubt it's the magic bullet the Liberals are convincing themselves it is. And Parkinson's agenda for further reform included not a hint he thought it important.

Even so, I don't doubt that reinstating the weakening of workers' bargaining power against their clearly more powerful employers by frustrating collective bargaining and promoting individual contracts, tolerating summary dismissal of workers and removing legislative protection of wages and conditions would indeed raise the productivity of labour (not to mention enhancing profits at the expense of wages).

It would do so mainly by giving employers far more freedom to shift workers around - to hire and fire at will, to bring workers in or send them home, and to split their shifts, move them between branches, put them on rolling shift work and make them work on weekends and public holidays all without additional compensation.

In other words, removing most of the paraphernalia of industrial relations legislation would give employers almost the same freedom to economise on the use of labour as they already have in managing the inanimate raw materials and machines that contribute to the production process.

It would impart to the labour market the supreme "flexibility" that Parkinson and other economists extol as the sine qua non of economic efficiency.

There's just one small problem, one the economists' model ignores rather than highlights: unlike all the other "factors of production", . Every unit of the stuff comes with a human attached. And each human unit is a bit different.

This means labour can give you trouble that other raw materials can't. The worse you treat it, the more it looks for ways to get back at you. The worse you treat it, the more you have to spend supervising it to prevent shirking.

You can't give yourself a huge pay rise without making it think it's underpaid. You can treat it inconsiderately only when it's in plentiful supply. If it's in short supply, it will up and leave. Smart employers (and conservative politicians) understand this, dumb ones don't.

But all that's by-the-by. The real point is that humans are meant to be the object of the economic exercise. When you seek to raise productivity and material living standards by making people's working lives a misery of uncertainty and insecurity, damaging people's family lives and even their health, you confuse means with ends, harming people in the name of helping them.