John Quiggin has an excellent post on Ross Gittins’ latest column about a new ABS study on Australian working hours. Gittins effectively suggests that the union-inspired concern about Australians working longer and longer hours has been exaggerated.
JQ, on the other hand, suggests that Gittins’ benevolent spin on the surprisingly modest increase in working hours, as measured by ABS, is a bit cute given that it was largely deliberately engineered, and has had a number of arguably adverse effects for employees in addition to an increase in working hours:
It’s important to observe that the rise in fulltime working hours was a reversal of a trend that had continued for more than a century. It was accompanied by a substantial increase in job stress and job insecurity, and these things were needed to induce workers to put in longer hours. Gittins makes the point that a lot of unpaid overtime was “compensated” by salary packages, but the shift towards such packages in the 1980s was precisely one of the devices used to extract more work effort, along with the conversion of employees into supposedly self-employed “contractors”.
JQ also makes the point that the ABS data suggest that many people “feel that they’ve been pressured into working excessive hours for no extra compensation“.
Both Gittins and JQ make some excellent points. The only additional comment I’d make is that at least part of the increase in working hours (and the engineered insecurity that brought it about) was a result of Australians having awarded themselves, over the decades leading up to the 1980s, working hours and conditions that were uncompetitive with major trading partners. Some degree of corrective action was necessary if we were to avoid continuing a slide down the slippery slope towards becoming the poor white trash of Asia. We’ve arguably now gone a bit far in the other direction, although Gittins’ article rather suggests that a correction is already underway. I suspect that phenomena like casualisation and “outsourcing” will soon also go the same way as the babyboomer generation progressively retires and Australia moves from a situation of chronic labour oversupply to equally chronic undersupply.