On his Twitter account on Wednesday, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews explained that of the 3,810 Victorians who tested positive for coronavirus over the past three weeks, an astonishing 89% kept working despite their early symptoms.
They simply couldn’t afford to stay home.
“Far too many people don’t have sick leave entitlements,” he tweeted. “Far too many people can’t afford to miss a shift. This is an indictment on the insecurity of our workforce – and a conversation we as a society must have.”
That’s absolutely right. But let’s start that discussion by recognising jobs didn’t become insecure by accident.
For decades, politicians and pundits urged us to welcome precarity as a liberation from the shackles of the old industrial order.
“No more vertical,” explained Tom Peters back in 1997, with the breezy enthusiasm common among management theorists at the time. “No more ladder. That’s not the way careers work anymore. Linearity is out. A career is now a checkerboard. Or even a maze. It’s full of moves that go sideways, forward, slide on the diagonal, even go backward when that makes sense.”
Ever since the Hawke and Keating years, governments have hailed workplace deregulation and flexibility, as they eroded centralised bargaining and rigid awards in the scramble for productivity. The almost universal enthusiasm of the market facilitated a conception of workers as, in Peters’ words, “free agent[s] in an economy of free agents”, with each person supposedly a “corporation of one”.
In the two decades since Peters coined the idea of the “personal brand”, workplace insecurity has increased and has been resisted by many workers – for good reason.
Some of the security staff guarding Melbourne’s Covid-19 quarantine hotels obtained the work through WhatsApp messages – and so didn’t even understand for whom they were actually working.
When new hires asked about wages, the recruiter simply messaged, “25 dollars, ABN”, meaning that they would be paid (poorly) as independent contractors rather than employees.
In the notoriously low pay security industry, employers use subcontracting to drive down rates, avoid liabilities and duck their own responsibilities.
A review by the Department of Justice and Community Safety detailed the “highly casualised, relatively low-paid and transient” workforce in the sector, with so-called “sham contracting” deployed to ensure that employees do not receive “employment entitlements such as overtime, penalty rates and leave”. It explained that on-the-job training rarely took place since bosses did not want “to invest in casual or transient staff”. Workers were instead expected to skill themselves on their own time even though language barriers mean that they “may not be understanding the training material delivered”.
The resurgence of the pandemic via these ill-equipped, poorly paid guards highlights what should have always been obvious but somehow wasn’t: namely, that the effects of precarity aren’t simply felt by individual workers but extend throughout the society to which those workers belong.
According to the Australian, 17 of the 29 people killed by Victoria’s current wave of Covid-19 have been in aged care homes, with at least 40 facilities across the state reporting one or more infections. The march of the virus through the population most susceptible to it reveals the horrendous consequences of casualisation in a sector increasingly run on market principles.
As some of the lowest-paid employees in Australia (rates of $23 per hour are standard), aged care staff rarely have full-time jobs. Instead, part-time or agency workers scrabble to put together a living wage by taking shifts across multiple facilities – which, of course, increases the propensity of infections to spread, and which the federal government is expected to ban.
In the current crisis, some staff have complained that they’re not provided with personal protective gear. Others explain they’ve continued to work despite mild symptoms, since, without proper leave entitlements, they can’t otherwise put food on their table.
The Australian reports that the new infections are almost exclusively found in private facilities, simply because state-run homes have better staff ratios, while the AMA warns the whole system now teeters on the brink of collapse.
Shocking, yes. Surprising, no.
What did we suppose would happen when the elderly – the most vulnerable people in the country – became raw materials for private businesses to exploit? What did we expect when, instead of insisting that our loved ones receive care from well-remunerated professionals, we allowed workers performing difficult and demanding jobs to be paid at poverty rates?
The chickens are coming home to roost – and now they’re infected.
Yes, let’s have a conversation about workplace insecurity.
But don’t pretend the problem can be fixed by government payments encouraging the sick to stay home (as necessary as they now are).
In the bad old days of the waterfront, wharfies huddled on the so-called Hungry Mile so the bosses could pick and choose their casual hires. Remarkably, in the 21st century, a similar regime prevails in our universities, where 70% of staff now work casually, uncertain from semester to semester whether they’ll pick up any hours.
After years of “reform”, workplace insecurity pervades the whole economy, right at a moment when every job is under threat.
Milton Friedman, the ideological godfather of market deregulation, once noted that “only a crisis … produces real change.”
The crisis has come – and with a vengeance. So let’s not let it go to waste. It’s well past time to reassert some control over our working lives.
• Jeff Sparrow is a Guardian Australia columnist