- by Anna Pha
- The Guardian
- Issue #2073
SRG workers at ALCOA in Worsley & Kwinana WA took industrial action over wages and conditions. If workers are to gain “sustained and inclusive full employment” it will require far more radical reforms including trade union rights.
Last month the Labor government released its white paper on employment, Working Future (WF). Its stated objective is “sustained and inclusive full employment.” It has been heralded by some in the media as an alternative to neoliberalism. But is it?
It should not be forgotten that it was the Hawke/Keating Labor government that introduced neoliberalism in Australia – referred to as ‘economic rationalism’ at the time.
WF says that “everyone who wants a job should be able to find one without having to search for too long.” That is certainly not the language of neoliberalism. Neoliberals carry out endless debates over the level of unemployment that constitutes “full employment” – whether it is 5 per cent or 4.5 per cent and so on.
There are many warm- and fuzzy-sounding words that nobody could disagree with in the white paper. WF “crystallises our ambition for a dynamic and inclusive labour market in which Australians have the opportunity for secure, well-paid jobs in a country where workers, employers and communities can thrive and adapt.”
It notes that there are “critical risks arising in our economy that markets alone cannot solve,” and talks about government playing a role. Privatisation and deregulation – central themes of neoliberalism – are not mentioned.
A lot of the social issues covered are not neoliberal ones. Gender equality, people with disabilities, Indigenous Australians, early childhood education and care, residential aged care, housing, regional and remote communities, and renewables all get a mention.
“The government is acting to broaden and deepen our industrial base, investing in capabilities critical to Australia’s future,” WF says.
There is a roadmap to address these issues by various means with the aim of getting more people into the workforce and covering labour shortages.
WF says the government will play a role in investing in people and industry.
At present the official number of unemployed and underemployed people is around three million. There are structural barriers to employment such as lack of affordable early childhood education and care, a mismatch between skills and job vacancies, lack of access to transport, lack of housing where jobs are located, entrenched disadvantage, caring responsibilities, and financial barriers.
Investment in people includes measures to address the housing crisis. The aim, working in partnership with the states and territories, is to deliver 1.2 million new homes over five years from 1st July 2024. This is an aim, not a plan. There is reference to “social and affordable housing” but no mention of public housing. The housing will be built by the private sector and it is not clear how much of this housing will be rental accommodation. It sounds more like a gift to developers.
There will be a new remote jobs program in consultation with First Nations people and remote communities, including a trial, creating up to 200 jobs in remote areas. Why a trial? There are so many unmet needs and unemployment is higher in remote areas.
Migration is part of the mix. “Migration is not a substitute for investing in the skills of Australians. However, well-targeted migration can complement local skills while contributing to productivity growth.”
“The education system is central to our goal of filling skills needs and building our future workforce.” There are measures relating to universities, TAFE and the private VET sector. In areas of skills shortage a further 300,000 fee-free TAFE places in addition to the 215,000 already announced that will be offered from 2024.
There will be new Regional and Suburban University Study Hubs and TAFE Centres of Excellence focusing on priority areas.
“The $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund will provide finance to projects to leverage Australia’s natural and competitive strengths in the following priority areas: renewables and low emission technologies; medical science; transport; value-add in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors; value-add in resources (read fossil fuels and rare earths); defence capability (read war preparations and nuclear submarines); and enabling capabilities.”
It appears that this investment will be in the private sector.
WAGES & JOBS
“Inclusive full employment is about broadening opportunities, lowering barriers to work including discrimination, and reducing structural underutilisation over time to increase the level of employment in our economy.”
“The government will seek to promote a labour market with jobs that are safe, secure, fairly paid and provide mutually beneficial flexibility to workers and employers.” Sounds great. In practice “flexibility” in the workplace means flexibility for employers, not for workers. Secure, safe and “fairly paid” jobs are only won by a strong militant union movement, but the right to strike and other trade union rights are not on the agenda.
“In the long term, real wage growth depends on productivity growth, a dynamic and competitive labour market and effective wage-setting institutions.”
A “competitive labour market” reeks more of neoliberalism with a race to the bottom in working conditions and wages. As for “productivity growth,” that depends on employers – the investments they make, sacking workers or increasing the rate of exploitation of workers. There is no mention of wages keeping up with inflation and while real wages are so low, employers have little incentive to make the necessary investments to increase productivity.
“A system of minimum wages, bargaining and a culture of genuine workplace cooperation can support both higher productivity and higher wage growth for workers.”
“Workplace cooperation” harks back to the Hawke/Keating government when under the Accord between the ACTU and Labor Party, workers cooperated with employers. Wages were frozen and the union movement committed to making no extra claims of employers. It was outright class collaboration with disastrous results for workers and trade unions.
So has Labor really abandoned neoliberalism?
By and large the consequences and ideology of neoliberalism remain intact. The public sector’s role in the economy is not restored. Privatisations are not reversed. Competition rears its ugly head in a world of monopoly capital.
When it comes to full employment being a reality, WF says: “Sustained full employment is about minimising volatility in economic cycles and keeping employment as close as possible to the current maximum level consistent with low and stable inflation.”
This is exactly what the Reserve Bank of Australia is doing. It is attempting to increase unemployment with the aim of reducing inflation to some arbitrary level. It goes to the heart of neoliberalism.
Economists refer to the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment, or the NAIRU, which they say represents the level of unemployment consistent with stable inflation.
With a note of optimism, WF says, “The NAIRU should not be confused with, nor constrain, longer-term policy objectives.” How long do workers have to wait for full employment?
Since the time of Karl Marx there has always been unemployment – a reserve army of labour that employers can draw on or dispense with according to needs at a particular time. The unemployed are always there as a threat to those in work that they can be thrown on the scrap heap if they make demands of an employer.
This reserve army is intrinsic to capitalism. Capitalism has never had, and will never achieve full employment.
While there are a number of positive reforms, they mainly tinker with the main thrust of economic policy in Australia.
If workers are to gain “sustained and inclusive full employment” it will require far more radical reforms including:
- Free education from early childhood through to university with the necessary income support
- Trade union rights including the right to strike
- Planning of economic development
- A greater role for the public sector in areas such as housing, renewables, medical research, pharmaceuticals, and the building of a merchant fleet
- Progressive taxation reform including the repeal of the stage three tax cuts for the wealthy
- Reversal of privatisation of key infrastructure including communications, energy, transport, insurance, and banking.
Cancelling the AUKUS plan to purchase nuclear submarines would free up resources to create real sustainable employment.