Is insecure work one of the missing pieces in the cost of living puzzle?

As part of the AusVotes series looking at what is behind the reported cost of living pressures, the changing nature of work is one factor that needs to be explored.

The data around cost of living pressures shows that average households have higher incomes, compared to CPI. Incomes have risen strongly and prices have fallen for some goods. (This is not universal, with renters and those on Newstart particularly under pressure from rising costs of housing – more on this later in the series.) Ed covered the details of this in his post here.

Some commentators have viewed the responses to this data as being nothing more than people having expectations of an aspirational lifestyle, rather than any real problems with meeting regular living costs. In a report for Per Capita, Tim Soutphommasane says that: “there is a cognitive dissonance among many Australians about the impact that living in larger homes, and enjoying more material consumer goods, will have on the cost of living.”

Others have teased out some of the more complex drivers of these feelings of insecurity, with Possum’s of the Great Unhinging being among the best. Here, he argues that part of the strong public response to WorkChoices was about fears of insecurity at work.

The nature of work in Australia has changed over the last few decades. From a base of predominately male, full-time work in times past, women have entered the workforce in much greater numbers and casual and part-time work has increased rapidly. At the same time, trade union membership has fallen sharply and increasing numbers of employees are now engaged as contractors.

The current workforce is made up of 70% full-time and 30% part-time, but these stats do not show the rates of casual or insecure work. The ACTU claims it is as high as 40% and the ABS reports nearly 20% of workers do not have access to paid leave entitlements. Other groups say 17% of workers are self-employed. [Image from this ACTU report.]

forms of work

Amidst this blizzard of stats, there’s a clear trend away from permanent, full-time work with increasing numbers of people working for themselves, or in casual work. Adding to this are those in part-time work who want more hours. Are these changes in work perhaps one of the factors behind the reports of cost-of-living pressures that is hidden behind the rising incomes overall? Does reporting total incomes miss people who have an unpredictable weekly paycheck?

Professor Guy Standing writes about the rise of a new class of workers; the precariat. These people, he argues, who are working in insecure and often low-paid jobs have increasing levels of anxiety and alienation.

“Millions of people across the world, including many Australians, are living and working in economic and social insecurity, many in casual or short-term, low-paid jobs, with contracts they worry about. Their incomes fluctuate unpredictably, they lack benefits that most people used to take for granted.

No paid holidays, no sick leave, no subsidised training, no worthwhile pension to look forward to, and no assurance that if they lose their job they will be able to rely on state benefits or other assistance.”

The recent ACTU inquiry into secure work featured a range of submissions. Family and Relationship Services Australia cited both research and the direct experiences of their clients in outlining the impact of a lack of secure work. They concluded:

Insecure jobs, while suitable for some, can have a significant negative impact on families, households and children, particularly because of the subsequent impact of fluctuating income and mental and physical health issues of the employee on relationship conflict, parenting and family stress.”

In their submission, the National Welfare Rights Network raises another consequence of increasing casualisation – the intersection with the welfare system. Here, the unpredictability of work and income is leading to a high rate of problems with both Centrelink and other family payments, particularly for people without computer access or who’s first language is not English.

“Simple errors and misunderstandings – like confusing declaration of gross and net amounts, or wrongly guessing the amount of earnings because employers do not provide pay slips, or having to juggle multiple jobs paid at varying rates of payment with multiple allowances, having earnings pay periods unaligned with Centrelink payment periods – can lead to large debts for income support recipients. In the worst case scenario it can result in prosecution for Social Security fraud.”

So is this rise in insecure work part of what is behind the reported anxiety around the cost of living? Polling done by AusPoll showed a high rate of anxiety for people in casual and other kinds of insecure work. If people don’t know what income they’ll have from week to week, is it any wonder that bill shocks, such as utilities, receive so much attention? And how does this insecurity factor into trying to get a loan for a car, or even a house? While the nature of work may have changed, have other economic structures also changed to adapt to this, or are they still orientated around a permanent, full-time wage earner?

I don’t know, but slating anxieties around cost of living solely down to people having unrealistic, aspirational expectations is perhaps missing a few data points.


Originally posted at AusOpinion.


About bluntshovels

Freelance writer, with an unhealthy interest in Senate committees.
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