The invisible world of low-wage work

November 13, 2015

13 November 2015

By David Hetherington

When he seized the Prime Minister’s job, Malcolm Turnbull told us that Australians are living at the most exciting time in our history, a time of big challenges and opportunities.  His leadership, he promised, would explain the challenges and seize the opportunities.

In that context, it’s worth reflecting on a large, hidden slice of Australia where challenges seem endless and opportunities few and far between.  This is the world of low-wage jobs.

Jobs are hailed a panacea for all manner of ills, offering livelihood, security, resilience and self-worth. But not all jobs are equal.  Invisible to most of us, millions of Australians endure jobs that offer basic income, and nothing more. Recently I got a glimpse into this world, spending a day on the road with the National Union of Workers.

The centre of this world is the lunch room, and with a mix of curiosity and uncertainty, I followed a team of organisers into a lunch room at a cold storage factory in western Melbourne.

It’s a bleak wintry day, matching the environment in which these men work (yes, they’re all men).  Their work unfolds in conditions most of us would find unbearable – heavy lifting in a room set to minus 27 degrees, basically the biggest freezer in the southern hemisphere. The men are a diverse group – Pacific islanders, Chinese, second-generation European migrants.

The first impression is shades of grey.  The walls are grey, the lino floors are grey, the chairs and tables are grey, even the high-vis gear is a washed-out grimy grey.

The second impression is of eyes averted.  No-one wants to be seen talking to the union.  The reason why soon becomes clear.  The enterprise bargaining agreement is up for negotiation next year, but while it dictates their livelihood, the workers aren’t engaged. This is because the owners of the site have successfully rid themselves of responsibility for the vast bulk of their workforce.

They have migrated more than 400 of their workers from company employment to labour hire agencies, where the company has no direct responsibility for their welfare.  They work at the same site, they do the same work, but they don’t have the same employer.  Or the pay, conditions, security or union rights that went with that employment.

So these workers believe, with some justification, the union can’t do much for them.

But it’s more than that.  There’s not just a sense of resignation, there’s a sense of fear.  They don’t want to be seen talking to us because there are cameras throughout the facility, and it doesn’t do well to fraternize with the union.

The tables segment by ethnic group, and over wrapped sandwiches and heated-up leftovers, one bloke at each table emerges as reluctant spokesman.  As they explain, it’s easy for the company to make its displeasure felt.  It’s nothing for someone’s weekly hours to be cut from 40 to 25.  A dropped mug in the lunch room leads to an incident report, which leads to an undated, signed resignation letter for the file. No wonder they don’t want to talk.

Even the conditions that aren’t deliberately punitive are a long way from what most of us would believe possible.  There’s no standard start times for shifts – it might be 4am, it might be 6 – and it changes consistently with little notice.  Unlike other cold storage sites, there is no ‘freezer allowance’ for working in sub-Arctic temperatures.

You might get called in on a Saturday morning, and then told to go home after a couple of hours’ work, despite a national standard around 4-hour minimum shifts which has been legally excluded from these workers’ agreements.  But complain and you’ll be tagged a troublemaker, with less hours in next week’s shifts.

At $30, the hourly rate is pretty good, but this has been achieved by trading away these conditions.  Now there is little left to trade away, so the wage premium will erode over time.

The final impression is a complete lack of solidarity, of collective identity.  Under individual labour hire agreements, it’s every man for himself – there’s no reward for sticking one’s head above the parapet to champion better conditions for all. This makes a union’s task near-impossible.

What it amounts to is the commoditization of work.  In this economic system, labour is simply one more input – no different from fuel, forklifts or power.  There’s no recognition that the workers who constitute this input are people just like their bosses – they have families, ill health, bereavements, celebrations.  Instead, under these economic arrangements, they are a unit cost to be optimised.

True, it’s not the slavery of the South, or Soviet forced labour, but there is something Orwellian about a place where physically powerful men are frightened to speak out for fear of provoking their economic masters.

There is nothing illegal about it, though.  It is the result of a clever, uncaring employer using contemporary workplace laws to full advantage by making these workers sign away their rights, rights that most Australians believe everybody enjoys.  For the employer, contracting out means both shifting risk to employees and avoiding the obligations of a union agreement by existing workers to a non-union employment arrangement.

These laws must change.  As proponents on both sides of the debate have argued, our workplace relations system is no longer fit for purpose.  Any change should recognize that workers are ever less likely to be employed directly, and it won’t just be through labor hire agencies, it will be through apps.  But equally any change must furnish workers with not just the right to organise to negotiate pay and conditions collectively, but with practical means to do so.

If we can’t do this, Malcolm Turnbull’s rhetoric of challenges and opportunities will rapidly sound hollow, as the disconnect between the two becomes ever more stark.