Showing posts with label casual employment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label casual employment. Show all posts

Monday, March 15, 2021

Neglect of aged care more proof of PM's blokey blind spot

Everywhere you look, Scott Morrison and his ministers have a women problem. You see it even as he uses the media focus on allegations of sexual assault as cover for his efforts to convey the aged care royal commission’s damning report to the too-hard basket.

When you think about it, aged care is the ultimate women’s issue. Of those receiving aged care, women outnumber men two to one. Who does most of the worrying about how mum or dad are being treated – and probably most of the visiting? More likely to be daughters than sons.

The commission’s report found that the root cause of the common ill-treatment of people in aged care is the insufficient number, inadequate training and low pay of aged care workers. And who are these overworked, undertrained and woefully paid age care workers? Almost all of them are women.

Now do you see why aged care conditions have been low on the priorities of successive governments? Not enough rich white men jumping up and down.

Aged care is huge. Despite understaffing, it has 366,000 paid staff, 68,000 volunteers and 28,000 contractors – about 3 per cent of the whole workforce.

The report found that at least a third of people in residential and at-home care had experienced substandard care. It identified food and malnutrition, dementia care, use of physical and chemical restraints and palliative care as needing urgent improvement.

Aged care used to have prescribed staffing ratios, but they were removed as part of the push to get for-profit providers into the “industry”. The report found that what regulation of facilities exists isn’t enforced because the government knows it’s not paying enough to make quality care possible.

The providers will tell you there’s a shortage of properly qualified personal care workers and nurses. Probably true. But those who are qualified are less attractive because they have to be paid more. Registered nurses have more choice about the industry they work in, so they must be paid more and treated better.

Lack of trained workers is a two-sided problem. If there was more demand for qualified workers and they were offered better pay and conditions – permanency, for instance – more would go to the trouble and expense of acquiring qualifications to supply.

Providers complain of high rates of staff turnover. They don’t mention that when they overwork, underpay and give workers no guarantee of regular work – or delegate their responsibilities as employers to a labour-hire company - a lot of workers soon leave in search of something less terrible - say, picking fruit in the blazing sun at Woop Woop.

It’s a funny thing: workers who are given little loyalty don’t tend to give much back. You’ve no idea how selfish workers can be. Don’t they know I’m trying to increase profits? Next time I see a Coalition MP I’ll give him (the hims are more receptive) an earful about how the dole’s so cushy these young bludgers don’t want to work.

It takes a lot of dedication to deal with the bodily needs of elderly people you’re not related to. But if you can find the motherly types, surely they won’t mind if you pay them peanuts. The full-time award rate for base-level aged care workers is $21.09 an hour, a fraction less than for base-level cleaners and just $1.25 above the Australian minimum wage.

Much of the poor treatment of people arises from the use of casualisation to save on wages and the resulting high rate of staff turnover, which makes it hard for residents and their carers to develop relationships.

The report found that “older people get the best care from regular workers they know, who respect them and offer continuity of care as well as insights into their changing needs and health requirements”.

In contrast, casually employed carers can struggle to “provide continuity of care and form ongoing relationships with older people”.

Professor Kathy Eagar, of the University of Wollongong, has said that “the staff are so busy that all they get time to do is tasks, like helping with toileting, showering, dressing and feeding residents. A lot of residents report they’re relatively lonely because, even if there are staff, they don’t have the time to talk to them.”

“For people with dementia, it helps to have the same people every day. If I don’t know my name because I’ve forgotten it, but the care worker does know my name, that’s a whole different proposition to if I don’t know it and my carer doesn’t know either,” she said.

Morrison says he’s focused on getting more jobs in the economy. Eagar has estimated that implementing the report’s proposals on staffing would increase the aged care workforce by about 20 per cent.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Deeper causes of America's troubles are economic and social

The older I get the more I prefer movies where nothing much happens. I’m increasingly impatient with car chases, gunfights and sword fights. I like movies that look at people’s lives and the way their relationships develop. Truth be told, I prefer escapist movies, but make an exception for those that help me better understand the difficulties encountered by people living in circumstances very different to mine. They may not be much fun, but they are character-building.

I put Frances McDormand’s memorable Nomadland in that category. If you want to understand how the richest, smartest, most “advanced” civilisation in the world could be tearing itself apart before our very eyes, Nomadland is an easy place to start.

McDormand plays an older woman who, having recently lost her husband, finds the global financial crisis and its Great Recession have caused her to lose her job, her home and even the small company town she’s lived in for years.

She fits out a second-hand campervan and takes off on the roads of middle America in search of somewhere to earn a bit of money and somewhere to camp for a few weeks that doesn’t cost too much.

It’s a solitary life, but slowly she makes casual friendships with a whole tribe of other older nomads moving around in search of unskilled casual work. The climax comes when her van breaks down and she must return to suburbia to beg her sister for a loan so she can keep on the move.

It’s a fictionalised version of a non-fiction book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. In the hands of the film’s director, it becomes a story of human resilience, how McDormand’s character and the other nomads learn to adapt and survive. According to the reviews, the movie glosses over the book’s criticism of the poor treatment and payment of people working at a huge Amazon warehouse.

For a harder-nosed expose of life on the margins of America’s mighty economy, I recommend the recent work of the Nobel prize-winning Scottish American economist, Sir Angus Deaton. With his wife Anne Case, another distinguished economics professor from Princeton University, Deaton has obliged Americans to acknowledge an epidemic that’s been blighting their society for two decades, the ever-rising “deaths of despair” among working-class white men.

These are deaths by suicide, alcohol-related liver disease and accidental drug overdose. Much of the problem is the opioid crisis, in which increased prescription of opioid medications – which the pharmaceutical companies had assured doctors were not addictive – led to widespread misuse of both prescription and non-prescription opioids and many fatal overdoses.

Deaton and Case found that these deaths of despair had risen from about 65,000 a year in 1995 to 158,000 in 2018 and 164,000 in 2019. This increase is almost entirely confined to Americans – particularly white males – without a university degree.

While overall death rates have fallen for those with full degrees, they’ve risen for less-educated Americans. Amazingly, life expectancy at birth for all Americans fell between 2014 and 2017 – the first three-year drop since the Spanish flu pandemic. It rose a fraction in 2018, as the authorities finally responded to the opioid crisis.

Deaton and Case have found that, after allowing for inflation, the wages of US men without college degrees have fallen for 50 years, while college graduates’ earnings premium over those without a degree has risen by an “astonishing” 80 per cent.

With the decline in employment in manufacturing caused by globalisation and, more particularly, automation, less-educated Americans have become increasingly less likely to have jobs. The share of prime-age men in the labour force has trended downwards for decades.

Despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016, Donald Trump won more votes in the Electoral College partly because most Republicans held their nose and voted for him, but mainly because three or four smaller midwest “rust bucket” states – still suffering from the loss of less-skilled jobs in the Great Recession – switched from the Democrats to the man who promised to give the establishment a big kick up the bum. (Instead, he gave it big tax cuts and more deregulation.)

So Trump is more a symptom than a cause of America’s long-running economic and social decay. Which doesn’t change the likelihood that his woeful mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic will add to the economic and social causes of deaths of despair.

Deaton and Case say the pandemic has exposed and accelerated the long-term trends that will render the US economy even more unequal and dysfunctional than it already was, further undermining the lives and livelihoods of less-educated people in the years ahead.

In the pandemic, many educated professionals have been able to work from home – protecting themselves and their salaries – while many of those who work in services and retail have lost their jobs or face a higher risk of infection doing them.

“When the final tallies are in, there is little doubt that the overall losses in life and money will divide along the same educational fault line,” they conclude.

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Friday, December 18, 2020

Job insecurity is about shifting risks, not being flexible

One thing we’ve learnt from the pandemic is that, for those who rely on evidence rather than anecdotes, what we believe to be The Truth keeps changing as we learn more. Take the way the medicos changed their tune on mask-wearing as more evidence came in.

It’s the same with the truth about job insecurity. The unions have gone for years claiming that work has become less secure, and in recent years the rise of the “gig economy” – where people get bits of paid work via a digital platform such as Uber or Deliveroo – means many people have found that claim a lot easier to believe.

But the training of economists says you should base conclusions about the economy on statistical evidence, not anecdotes or even personal experience. And the trouble is, a quick look at the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ figures for the labour force shows little sign of growing job insecurity.

The bureau doesn’t measure insecurity as such. Nor, since there’s no legal definition yet, does it even measure casual employment directly. But, since casual workers aren’t paid annual and sick leave, the bureau’s figures for those workers who say they aren’t eligible for paid leave are taken to be a measure of casual employment.

By this measure, although casual employment grew strongly to about a quarter of all workers in the 20 years to the turn of the century, that’s hardly changed in the 20 years since then. So where is all the growing insecurity?

Of course, since the big companies running the gig platforms on the internet have gone to great lengths to ensure the people getting work from them aren’t classed as their employees, they aren’t included among the casual employees.

No, they’d be counted as “self-employed”. But the figures show no great change in the proportion of workers who are self-employed over the past 20 years.

So where’s all this growing job insecurity we hear about? Short answer: buried much deeper in the figures.

Before we get to that, one thing we can say with confidence, however, is that though the gig economy is highly visible and gets much publicity in the media, it isn’t all that big relative to a labour force of more than 13 million people.

And, contrary to what some young people who spend too much time on their phones imagine, it’s highly unlikely that most work is in the process of moving to some internet platform. No, the issue of insecure employment is much bigger and wider than what happens to the gig economy.

One labour market expert who’s been working to explain why job insecurity is real despite its seeming absence from the stats is Professor David Peetz, of Griffith University.

In a piece he wrote for my second-favourite website, the universities’ The Conversation, in 2018, Peetz argued that the real causes of job insecurity aren’t the type of contract people are on – casual or permanent – but the way businesses are being structured these days.

These new organisational structures are designed to minimise costs, transfer risk from corporations to employees, and shift power away from employees, Peetz says.

Another part of his explanation is that the statisticians’ nationwide totals conceal changes in some industries but not others. (Other academics, from Curtin University, have used their own index of precarious employment to show that insecure employment is above average in the accommodation and food services, agriculture, and arts and recreation industries, but below average in the utilities, financial services, and public administration industries.)

Peetz says that “large corporations want to minimise their costs and risks, avoid accountability when things go wrong, and ensure products have the features they want.”

One instance of changing organisational arrangements is the dramatic increase in franchised businesses – where what looks like the local branch of some national chain is actually owned by a local small business person.

“The franchisee bears responsibility for scandals such as underpaying workers,” he says.

“Other corporations call in labour hire companies to take on responsibility for their workers. This cuts costs and transfers risk down the chain – which means jobs are more insecure.

“Most people working for franchises, spin-off companies, subsidiaries and labour hire firms are still employees. It’s more efficient for capital to control workers through the employment relationship than to pay them piece rates as contractors. That would run the risk of worker desertion or of shortcuts affecting quality.” (One powerful reason most of us won’t end up in the gig economy.)

In research published this month, Peetz drills into previously unpublished statistics from the bureau on casual workers to discover more of the elusive truth about “precarity” (my nomination for ugliest new word of the year).

He found that about a third of workers classed as “casual” because of their lack of leave entitlements worked full-time hours. More than half had the same working hours from week to week. More than half could not choose the days on which they worked.

Almost 60 per cent had been with their employer for more than a year, and about 80 per cent expected to be with the same employer in a year’s time.

Does any of that fit your mental image of what it means to be a casual worker? Get this: Peetz found that as few as 6 per cent of those we class as “casuals” work varying hours or are on standby, have been with their employer for a short time, and expect to be there for a short time.

Note that employers can usually dispense with the services of casual employees without giving them any notice, nor any redundancy payout.

“Overall,” Peetz concludes, “what I’ve found suggests the ‘casual’ employment relationship is not about doing work for which employers need flexibility. It’s not about workers doing things that need doing at varying times for short periods.

“The flexibility is really in employers’ ability to hire and fire, thereby increasing their power. For many casual employees there’s no real flexibility, only permanent insecurity.”

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