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Hollowed out labour market stymies equal opportunity



Over the last two decades, especially after the GFC, we have seen a process of job polarisation. There has been growth in high end jobs, but mostly in low end jobs, the outcome of which has been the hollowing out of middle level jobs.

Woman corporateThis hollowing out of the middle also relates to greater wealth polarisation, as French economist Thomas Piketty has brought to light.

The labour market is under a lot of pressure from many angles, so what does this mean for the project of women's equal opportunity in employment?

In Australia, as in many other countries, women have a very different employment profile from men. This has not changed much over decades. Over 54 per cent are concentrated in health care and social assistance, retail trade, education and training, and accommodation and food services industries, compared to just 22 per cent of the male workforce.

These are all sectors with the highest levels of workforce casualisation and high rates of underemployment. Altogether around 16 per cent of female workers (over 900,000) have no work or not enough work in Australia at present — 12.6 per cent for males, which is too high also.

As for many other countries there is also a significant gender pay gap, currently around 18 per cent for full time jobs. This is quite pronounced in the sectors where women dominate.

Equal opportunity endeavours are floundering in the second decade of the 21st century with too many women sequestered in low wage and insecure employment with insufficient hours of work. Research shows a strong entrapment effect for women in these jobs.

But what lies behind the hollowing out of the middle which affects women's employment so much? In my own research, I identified three core factors at play.


"It is not too much to say that there is a revolution in employment that does not bode well for equal opportunity aspirations. The question is: What can be done?"


The first relates to public sector contraction — austerity. Around 40 per cent of women's employment is directly or indirectly dependent on public funding particularly in education and training, health care and social assistance. Very large portions of employment in these sectors are now contract or casual arrangements due to long term government cutbacks. This was a key finding of the ACTU's Inquiry into Insecure Employment in 2012.

The second factor relates to the ascendancy of business models designed around disposable workforces linked to fluctuations in demand for goods and services. This affects core areas of women's employment of retail trade and accommodation and food services. But it also extends into public sectors such as education and training with teaching jobs in schools and universities linked to student numbers. New online employment platforms are also furthering this trend in the so-called 'gig economy'.

The third factor relates to the way employment itself is being modified by technologies of on-the-job monitoring and surveillance and work intensification. Professor Michael Marmot discussed this factor in his recent Boyer lectures in relation to a man in a warehouse who had to wear a device that monitored his output. I have also interviewed women with this experience. These factors mean that job performance is highly controlled with very high demands — work intensification — that give employers the opportunity to dispose of workers by simply increasing the output demands.

It is not too much to say that there is a revolution in employment that does not bode well for equal opportunity aspirations. The major question then is: What can be done? Based on the analysis above, I identify three sets of changes in public policy and labour law that are needed at this time.

The first imperative relates to accountability of governments, and action to ameliorate the far-reaching effects of public sector contraction — austerity — across core sectors of women's employment — not only in the public and government funded sectors, but also in feminised private industry sectors which can take advantage of women's weakened bargaining position in employment in relation to casualisation and degraded work conditions.

The second imperative is in the area of social policies, which need to focus on getting people into decent jobs and desist in taking the low road of enforcing placement in low quality, precarious jobs, as is the case in current welfare-to-work regimes.

The third imperative is in the area of labour law. At present, there are no protections against long term entrapment in casual employment in Australia. These arrangements need to be curtailed through strict conversion to permanent employment after a period of time, and the application to casual and dependent contract workers of the full suite of labour standards including leave entitlements and protections against dismissal.

This may seem a strange list of imperatives to improve women's employment position but they are in effect among the most important for the restoration of those much-needed middle level jobs.


Veronica SheenDr Veronica Sheen is an independent social researcher and commentator. The article draws from a paper she delivered at a conference on the future of work at the International Labour Organisation in Geneva in 2015.

This is the latest article in our ongoing series on work.

Topic tags: Veronica Sheen, global financial crisis, work, women, equality



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Existing comments

The problem is not just equality but that all governments - labor or liberal - seem wedded to neo-conservative policies which have as an outcome, the reduction in hours as well as income of the labour force. Governments won't be interested in helping address the problem since it will mean unwinding decades of bad policy. With robots set to replace humans in almost all jobs will government still blame the unemployed for their problems.Governments must introduce policies now designed to get people into full-time rather than casual work, protect incomez, and stop human replacement technogies in industry. Rather than less soebsing on health and education there needs to be more. A social disaster awaits if nothing is done. They won't be able to build enough prisons to house everyone who can't get work, can't get welfare and will need to resort to crime to just survive. That would represent an undoing of civilization .

Matt Miller | 13 December 2016  

Veronica Sheen has identified some very relevant issues regarding employment of women. And Matt Miller has raised important issues regarding Australian governments dedication to economic rationalism and neoliberalism and their lack of vision in jobs strategies. This has resulted in a situation where in 1966, manufacturing accounted for 26 percent of the workforce and in 2013, it was 8 percent. In the 1970s, the AMWU (then the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union) saw the problems arising and campaigned for a 35 hour week. As a result, the union was vilified by many employers and conservative politicians (both Coalition and ALP) as being unrealistic. The fact is that the AMWU leaders then had hit on a great idea to spread the amount of work available to more workers and to increase the amount of leisure time, which would provide more jobs for the leisure industry. Some industries did reduce hours for workers (eg full time work for public servants is a 37 1/2 hour week), but this idea was not adopted fully. Now sadly we have a situation where most fulltime workers are overworked and are doing overtime much of which is unpaid, while there are increasing numbers of under employed or unemployed people.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 13 December 2016  

Why not use the real unemployment figure of 2 million or one vacancy for every 20 unemployed in your essay?

Marcus L'Estrange | 13 December 2016  

There is hint of what needs to be done in the article and especially in the commentaries. The changes that have occurred through globalisation etc are very good, but "we" as a society and governments have not realised what the real challenges are and how to address them. The world as a whole is much richer and the transformation out of poverty for billions of people one of the best things ever to happen in history...quite remarkable and the answer to so many of our prayers for them. Why be sad!! Because we now need to restructure how Western societies operate: Australia is now much richer for the changes that have occurred and which will continue, but we have not learned how to adequately share the work available or the wealth that capitalistic commerce has very successfully been making out of globalisation and international trade. Let`s not be dispondent, and not let`s try to turn the clock back, but let`s just fix it! We need imagination and good will across society, but actually it should not be that hard given the levers in the hands of government. It just needs better politicians to start working together for the common good and to see the glorious big picture.

Eugene | 13 December 2016  

Thomas Piketty gave a talk at the Sydney Opera House a few weeks ago. His graph of US national income that went to the top 10% in the USA shows the symptom, namely, the RISING portion from 35% in 1982 to 50% today. The pie grew but the extra pie went to the rich. Living costs rose but wages stagnated. (Had the portion remained constant, all would have been well.) In England, London got the growth, but the north of England stagnated - hence Brexit. US wage stagnation gave us Trump. In Australia, post-war inequality of the top 10% income earners was 25% of the total income. It rose to 29% in 1963 then fell to 24% from 1976 to 1984. Since then it has risen to 27% in 2008 and to 30% in 2013. Perhaps today, this growth in inequality is reflected in the housing market, top heavy in investors locking out first home buyers. Piketty’s talk given at the Opera House is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hfDoQt8NVH0. It is 54 minutes long, but well worth watching. The US data is at 13:48. The Australian data is at 17:18. The ratio of private capital to national income appears at 31:59.

Peter Horan | 14 December 2016  

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