There was once more than a grain of truth in the claim that a job was the best path out of poverty. As long as there was a robust industrial relations framework overseeing the labour market to ensure that a job actually meant a fair degree of security, a fair degree of predictability around the hours of work, a fair wage, and fair conditions, including such elements as sick leave, annual leave and superannuation. As long as workers were not systematically obstructed from organising and bargaining collectively through their unions. And as long as there were enough jobs!
But when the Howard government kicked off its twin-engined push to make both welfare and wages unlivable, there was no longer any truth in the truism. Whilst the meaning of "poverty" remained unchanged, a US-style emergence of a "working poor" was now, once again, a feature of Australia's landscape of inequality.
The meaning of "job" and the meaning of "welfare" both underwent a radical transformation. A "job" now means, for nearly half the workforce, uncertain hours and no security. And wages, for many low-paid workers, don't even cover the most basic necessities, such as a place to live. As far as leave entitlements are concerned, for many insecure workers these are a luxury they've heard about but are yet to experience. As for "welfare", we have swallowed the nonsense that came out from the US in the '90s from such ideologues as Lawrence Mead, pontificating that income support was actually the cause of poverty. Which is a bit like saying the health system causes illness.
This went down so well in Australia that, at least for a time, when the neoliberal consensus was seemingly unassailable, both sides of politics seemed to subscribe to the principle that "welfare", instead of denoting wellbeing, really denoted failure. Being described as "being on welfare" became one of the biggest put-downs imaginable. Our current Prime Minister has said that the rate of the unemployment benefit is kept deliberately low as an incentive to find work. An offensive claim that presumes there are enough jobs for those seeking them, and that people prefer to be unemployed as a matter of choice. He is yet to explain why wages are kept deliberately low. Unless you accept the completely unempirical nonsense that low wages lead to more jobs instead of higher profits.
The thing that was missing from all of this guff was the prevention of poverty and the reduction of inequality through full employment with decent wages, and a social security system that actually provided security instead of an inadequate income that meant deliberate humiliation and hardship. As long as poverty was treated as a personal choice rather than a structural effect, not only was nothing going to be done about preventing it, it was bound to be exacerbated, and not just for those who are not in paid work but also for those who are.
It was from those Howard years that the Morrison government learnt what you can get away with. It learnt that you can get away with putting the boot into unemployed workers, that you can get away with forcing people to wage a daily battle for survival from below the poverty line. And you can get away with restructuring the labour market so that a job is no longer necessarily a path out of poverty.
But this lesson has thankfully reached its limit. The advocacy by unemployed workers, people with a disability, sole parents and other carers, and students, has changed the political landscape. The truth spoken by the people pushed to the margins will always, eventually, drown out the lies told about them. Significantly, the union movement has been a strong voice, alongside other progressive sections of civil society, in standing in solidarity with people who are not in paid work, especially as the demarcation between employment and unemployment has been so deliberately blurred by the neoliberal trajectory, if not, in some instances, erased. This was in clear evidence earlier this year as we saw the ACTU campaigning strongly against both the end of JobKeeper and what is effectively a massive cut to JobSeeker, due to the complete removal of the coronavirus supplement.
COVID-19 has taught us how fragile the fence is between being employed and unemployed. The pandemic shone a light on insecure work, with its blatant dangers to health through such factors as the denial of sick leave and the need to work multiple jobs to piece together the semblance of a living wage.
While the Morrison government learnt how far it could go with practising the art of cruelty towards unemployed workers, the 2014 Abbott/Hockey budget being the clear benchmark for viciousness, it has not learnt the parallel lesson on how far it can go in putting the boot into employed workers, a lesson the Howard government learnt when it lost the 2007 election over the much-hated WorkChoices.
The gratuitous meanness, for example, of withdrawing the provisions for addressing wage theft and including provisions that will exacerbate casualisation in what was left of the Industrial Relations Omnibus Bill last month, means that workers will be exposed to insecurity and exploitation as a norm; something that some sections of the business community, such as the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia, recognised as being bad for the economy and bad for society.
Still other sections of corporate Australia not only rejoiced in this meanness but pushed and prescribed it as a way of lowering what they saw as the cost of labour and what most us see as the means of living. We are now seeing resistance to even modest increases to the minimum wage from the same dismal cheer squad for the ideology of cruelty; never mind the fact that many of these are the same players who have made bumper profits over the past 12 months, topped up by generous lashings of business welfare.
All of this is hard to accept when we all saw in spades how the workers of Australia, many of whom are insecurely employed, in sectors as diverse as cleaning, hospitality, retail, health, emergency services, food processing, transport and education, literally kept us alive at the height of the pandemic. It is similarly hard to accept the death by a thousand cuts that the public sector is subjected to by this government for nothing but ideological reasons, including the socially and economically inefficient practice of outsourcing and the vindictive cap on both staffing levels and wage growth.
It is no exaggeration to say that the mood of the nation was, and is, that workers are essential, and that none of us can be safe unless all of us are safe.
Many of us who felt removed from the manufactured precarity wrought by neoliberal orthodoxy realised that we are more vulnerable to income loss and job insecurity than we had previously thought. In fact, many of us who did not even see ourselves as workers realised that this was exactly what we were, the colour of our collar being irrelevant to our position of unequal power in relation to those who are the chief owners and controllers of private capital and their senior agents.
In other words, times have changed. And they have changed significantly, in the following ways:
- More of us, whether we are well paid, low paid, in standard employment, insecure work, part-time work, self-employed, contract work, small business, gig work or highly gendered unpaid work, are able to see ourselves as having more in common than not. We are seeing ourselves not as separate classes, but as diverse members of a working class. This is a massive change in a society that has formerly fallen for the fantasy that we are all middle class, or at least striving to be. Along with this change of consciousness, and integral to it, is a growing sense of the leadership role of the union movement in defending not only the rights of its members but the safety and wellbeing of society. Which is one of the reasons ACTU secretary Sally McManus is so concerned that "very few aged care and nearly no disability care workers have been offered their first vaccination".
- We are beginning to refuse to accept the fallacy that unemployed workers and others receiving income support are somehow different to those of us who are in some form of paid work. Therefore, and not before time, we are unwilling to tolerate the practices of a government that makes an artform out of cruelty to unemployed workers, students, people with a disability, older people, and sole parents and other carers. Gone are the days when a political consensus of cruelty to this section of the working class was a given.
- COVID-19 has uncovered the interconnectedness of things. It is obvious that you can't have a strong economy without a safe and healthy society, and you can't have a safe and healthy society when there are over 116,000 people experiencing homelessness. There is a heightened awareness, therefore, of the urgent need for the federal government to make a massive investment in public housing. There is also a heightened awareness of the risks to all of us that arise from exposing workers to risk and insecurity.
- We have a much stronger sense of the primacy of the social, the need for a strong, well-resourced public sphere, accessible to all of us. More than ever, we know that we are lost without a well-resourced, profoundly public, deeply inclusive, education, health, housing and social services sector. We understand that security is best not left to the private sector. We also understand that we all, at some time, need help from each other, which is why I have argued elsewhere for the concept of a social guarantee, embracing social security, housing, full employment and mutual respect rather than mutual obligation.
All of which tells us it's one thing to learn from history about what you can get away with, but the deeper historical lesson is that we must have the collective courage to imagine a different configuration of how we work, how we live, and how we claim the space and time to care for each other.
- Dr John Falzon is senior fellow of inequality and social justice at Per Capita. He was national chief executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society from 2006 to 2018 and is a member of the Australian Services Union. His recent proposal for a reconfiguration of the social security system, We've Got Your Back, was released by Per Capita in December 2020.