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Union campaign emotive but misleading

By Alex Philipatos - posted Friday, 21 June 2013


Advertisements from the ACTU depicting parents struggling with the demands of work and family have been airing during prime time television slots lately. One of the more provocative scenarios shows a young girl who has just won a race at a school sports day, but is unable to celebrate with her mother or father like the other kids ostensibly because her parents are stuck at work. All that was needed to complete the story was an image of the mother or father slaving away in the office to submit a report to the boss on time. Alas, that was left to the viewer's imagination.

Such poignant depictions tug at our heartstrings, not only because we sympathise with the kid but also because many of us have either been in the position of the parent or the child.

These emotive ads, which are part of the ACTU's campaign against insecure work, are modelled on the successful Your Rights at Work Campaign and serve two purposes for the union movement.

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First, given falling union membership, and the damage to their reputation more recently, unions are trying to reinvent their role and gather support among the Australian public. These ads are their locomotive back into relevance.

Second, the ads further a perception that Aussies are being overworked by their employers in jobs that have become less secure.

Although it is fair to highlight the importance of work/life balance, are Australians really being overworked? And is there any evidence that job security has deteriorated?

The ACTU's pet gripe in recent times has been casual work and its perceived growth in the modern labour market. Apparently there are just too many casual workers who are not receiving the benefits that accrue to part-time or full-time employment. The assumption is that if given a choice, workers would elect a permanent position over a casual one, but they are being unreasonably denied this opportunity by their employers.

The ACTU uses this perception to justify its proposal to give the Fair Work Commission greater power to force employers to convert casual employees to permanent positions if they refuse workers' requests.

Leaving aside the fact that casual workers are predominately young and often prefer the flexibility that casual work offers – not to mention the higher hourly wage – is it accurate that work has become increasingly insecure?

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According to current ABS statistics on forms of employment, 2.2 million workers are employed as casuals out of a total 9.5 million employees, or 23%, compared with 25% of workers employed as casuals in 2001. The proportion of workers employed as casuals has actually declined by 2%. Contrary to union claims, work has become more secure.

But what about the charge that Australians are working longer and harder? Are Australians forced to sacrifice family time to be at the behest of their employers as the advertisement implies? Once again, the statistics tell a different story. Average hours worked for the Australian workforce has actually declined, both for the workforce as a whole, and for full-time workers. In 2000, average hours worked by full-time workers was just over 41 hours per week. By 2010, it was 40 hours per week. For Australians as a whole, average hours worked per week declined from just over 34 hours to just under 33 hours over the same period.

A deeper look into the data reveals that the proportion of employees working long hours has increased, while there are more workers who are underemployed – people who would prefer to be working longer hours – than those who are unemployed.

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About the Author

Alex Philipatos is policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies.

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All articles by Alex Philipatos

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