Showing posts with label gig economy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gig economy. Show all posts

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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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

For every problem there’s a job, and no shortage of problems

With the economy subsiding in a heap within days of Scott Morrison winning re-election thanks to the Coalition’s superior economic management skills, he and his ministers are being swamped with helpful hints about how they can get things moving again.

The business lobby groups are proffering some novel solutions: what would do the trick is to cut the rate of company tax and reform industrial relations so the unions are no longer running the country and extracting exorbitant pay rises from employers.

But, in doing what they always do, the lobby groups are selling business short. The conclusion I suspect our smarter business people are drawing is that the surprise re-election of a government that isn’t able to agree on many policies means that if they’re waiting for these guys to fix their problems, they’ll be waiting a long time.

We’ve entered the DIY economy: if you’ve got a problem, fix it yourself. Since the government can’t agree that climate change is more than a lip-service problem, the electricity industry will have to find its own solution.

Same goes for our low rate of productivity improvement. The nation’s productivity improves when the nation’s businesses work smarter, not from government planes dropping policy cargo from the sky.

That’s what I like about a new report from Deloitte Access Economics, The Path to Prosperity: Why the future of work is human.

According to its lead author, David Rumbens, “we don’t face a dystopian future of rising unemployment, aimless career paths and empty offices. Yes, technology is driving change in the way we work, and the work we do, but it’s ultimately not a substitute for people.

“Technology is much more about augmentation than automation, and many jobs will change in nature because of automation, rather than disappear altogether. We can use technology to our advantage to create more meaningful and productive jobs, involving more meaningful and well-paid work.”

Rumbens’ boss, Richard Deutsch, says that “for every problem there’s a job, and the world isn’t running out of problems”.

Just so. The report disputes the popular notion that robots will take our jobs. “Technology-driven change is accelerating around the world, yet unemployment is close to record lows, including in Australia,” it says.

“New technologies will have the capacity to automate many tasks, but also create as many jobs as they kill, and employment is growing in roles that are hardest to automate.”

Another mistaken notion is that people will have lots of different jobs over their careers. Despite all the things people who wouldn’t know try to tell you, overall, work is becoming more secure, not less. Australians are staying in their jobs longer than ever.

The gig economy is not taking over, and the proportion of casual jobs isn’t changing, despite what the unions claim. This is not opinion, it’s statistical fact.

Why are jobs becoming more secure rather than less? Because, with more tasks being done by machines, the kinds of skills employers need their workers to possess are changing. And the skills employers increasingly need are in short supply.

When you find people who possess the skills you’re looking for, you don’t make them casuals, you try to keep them. If they left, they’d be hard to replace. That’s particularly true if they’ve acquired those skills on the job – at the boss’s expense.

It shouldn’t surprise you that employers’ demand is shifting from manual skills to cognitive skills – from the hands to the head – and from routine to non-routine jobs. Manual and routine white-collar jobs are most easily done by machines.

What may surprise you is that, as machines get better at doing routine cognitive jobs, employers increasingly require skills of the heart rather than the head – the “soft skills” needed for “interpersonal and creative roles, with uniquely human skills like creativity, customer service, care for others and collaboration, that are hardest of all to mechanise”.

Such heart skills will be needed most in the services sector, where people rather than machines are the key to driving how value is created – government services, construction, health, professional services and education.

So, what must the government be doing to meet this need? The report doesn’t say. Its focus is on what employers – private or public – should be doing.

“With skill requirements changing faster and becoming more job-specific [good point], the future of work will require much more, and much better, on-the-job learning than Australia has today,” it says.

“Business leaders will have to make active choices, and just buying skills won’t be enough, they will have to adopt an investment frame of mind, and train them.

“With investment in on-the-job training cheaper, more relevant and more focused than classroom learning, the future of work will be a combination of learning and work integrated into one. And refreshing the skills of current, experienced workers will be just as critical as producing students and graduates with the skills they need.

“By making workers smarter and better suited to the jobs of the future, and improving the match between what businesses need and what workers have, we will make our workplaces happier and more productive.”

Who’d have thought one of the big four chartered accounting firms could talk so much sense?
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