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Jobs lost to the office evolution


Fingers on a typewriterThe recent debate about expanding employment for people with disability would make you think that easy access to welfare benefits was the main problem. In reality, the major barrier is a lack of job opportunities. Despite a strong economy and low unemployment rate, employers and the labour market are still the major barriers to moving people from welfare to work.

Consider the Australian public service's performance as an employer of people with disabilities. Despite strategies designed to boost employment of people with disabilities, the public service has gone backwards. In 1986, people with a disability made up 6.6 per cent of public service employees. Today it is around 3 per cent.

According to the Australian Public Service Commission, the decrease in the number of ongoing employees with a disability over the past year has been the largest in more than a decade.

It's not that senior public servants don't want to employ people with disabilities. But, as in other workplaces, technological change is reshaping the demand for skills. Just as automation has transformed manufacturing and agricultural workplaces, information and communications technology has transformed office environments.

If you walked into a public service office in the early 1980s, you'd see typing pools, tea ladies, bustling mailrooms and whole floors full of people doing routine clerical work. You'd see senior staff whose office equipment consisted of a desk, a chair, a phone and a collection of pens and pencils.

By the mid 2000s the typists and stenographers were gone. Almost everyone is typing their own documents, operating a computer and working the photocopier. Much of the routine paper handling has been automated and there are few clerical jobs for people without post-school qualifications.

People with disabilities were disproportionately employed in low level positions and most of those positions have gone. On top of that, senior positions have become multiskilled, which increases the chances that the job includes a task that a person with a disability is unable to do.

Technological change is good. It makes improvements in living standards possible. But as US researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee explain, change produces losers as well as winners. 'There is no economic law that says that everyone, or even most people, automatically benefit from technological progress.'

People who find themselves squeezed out of the labour market because their skills are no longer in demand have a higher risk of ending up on disability payments. As businesses exposed to technological change close down, move offshore or update their equipment, they shed workers.

While disability may not be a problem for an employee with highly valued skills, when new technology and work practices destroy demand for those skills the person is forced to compete for unskilled work. Many of the other applicants will be younger, fitter and healthier. Not surprisingly many people with disabilities end up withdrawing from the labour market.

The Government's solution is to intensify the competition for jobs by making disability payments harder to get. In January next year, it will change the eligibility conditions for the Disability Support Pension and start directing more people onto Newstart Allowance.

For a single person the pension pays $344.50 a week. while Newstart pays only $243.40. That means savings for the Government, and poverty for people who can't find work.

While there are programs designed to help people search for work and learn new skills, there's nothing to address the demand side of the problem. Public service departments are not creating jobs designed around the experience and abilities of long-term welfare recipients. And the Government is not demanding that private sector employers do so either.

All the responsibility lies with welfare recipients. They must adjust to the labour market and compete for work. The reality is that many people can't easily adjust and compete.

It isn't fair to place the responsibility on those who bear the brunt of technological change. In a decent society there's an unwritten social contract between winners and losers. Change drives growth, and those who benefit from growth have a responsibility to reach out to those who are harmed by it.

If governments can't find a way to create job opportunities for people displaced from the labour market, then they at least have an obligation to pay a decent level of income support while people are looking for work. $243.40 is not a decent level of income support.

While in the longer term the best solution is to invest in people's ability to learn new skills and adapt to change, in the short term, people who can't work still need to pay the bills. Condemning jobless Australians to poverty isn't a job creation strategy. It's a cop out. 

Paul O'CallaghanPaul O'Callaghan is Executive Director of Catholic Social Services Australia. 

Topic tags: Paul O'Callaghan, disability, welfare to work, public service



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Existing comments

Well said, Paul. You have expressed the essence of the matter well: "Change drives growth, and those who benefit from growth have a responsibility to reach out to those who are harmed by it."
I remember you well as one of the good men of the Commonwealth Public Service.

Peter Downie | 30 November 2011  

I agree with much of what Paul has said. I wonder though if there needed to be more specifics about the types of disabilities that are impacted by technological change. Surely technology makes it easier for many people with disabilities to participate in work (if employers give them a chance).

Katrina Davis | 30 November 2011  

A generous, sharply argued piece. Forcing people to compete for work by reducing them to poverty is a shocking distortion of the Austrlian ethos.

Joe Castley | 30 November 2011  

The solution is at hand — eugenics. People with disabilities can often now be detected in the womb, and the mothers are under pressure to abort them. Problems are being solved by killing the people who will have problems.

Gavan Breen | 30 November 2011  

An important article. I draw readers attention to where he writes: "$243.40 is not a decent level of income support." It should only take a few minutes' reflection and sensitivity to realise that recent governments' and media attitude to the unemployed and displaced is not only unrealistic but cruel. Modern rental or homing costs takes the major portion of such an allowance leaving little or nothing per week for nourishing food, replacing clothing, electricity and water usage, transport costs etc. Forget about anything that represents social inclusion. Newstart not only obliges the recipient to undergo serial ritual humiliation but puts them in the Kafkaesque nightmare of not being able to afford looking, let alone gaining, employment. It's insane. And unjust. The costs and challenges facing the disabled are simply worse. Self-professing Christians who think it's not should hang their heads in shame. Or try it.....seriously.

Stephen Kellett | 30 November 2011  

Much of this discussion centers on the loss of any value system underpinning the groups of people involved. The Govt wants to reduce costs for 'economic competence' reasons, the employers only want 'efficiency' returns and the individuals only want 'justice'! Where is the confluence in that conflict of interests?

Brian Larsson | 30 November 2011  

A very well written piece. As a jobseeker who is just about to start receiving Newstart, I can tell you there's a knot in my stomach about paying the rent,electricity, gas, my phone & internet bills, groceries and so on. Someone should have mentioned the possibility that technology could really hurt my working life while I was at secretarial college!

Annette H | 01 December 2011  

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