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The Changing Nature of Employment Under Capitalism

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Ned K.

The Australian Financial Review weekend edition of 20-21 June 2015 contained some noteworthy statistics on the changing nature of employment in developed capitalist countries.

In the USA, apart from all the workers employed on individual contracts by companies or by franchisees, there are 17 million workers deemed 'freelancers' or 'independent contractors'.

In Canada 6.5% of the workforce is categorized as 'self-employed'.

In Australia 18% are self-employed but this does not include workers employed by an employer on an ABN. Nor does it include workers on fixed term contracts, a growing number in both the private and public sector. Factor in casual employment and part time employment with fluctuating weekly hours of work and there is well over 30% of workers in Australia that either feel like they are 'on their own' in the world of work or in too risky a situation to enforce the limited rights under employment law that exist in Australia at the moment.

The Abbott Government plan is to change employment law to create more 'flexibility' for employers which will increase the number of workers in these forms of precarious employment. Precarious employment forms divide workers and, except in areas of occasional high demand for high skilled jobs in a particular industry, make it more difficult for workers to organize collectively.

In sectors of the economy dependent on federal government funding such as disabilities, child care and aged care, the trend towards self-employment and individualized employment contracts is likely to accelerate under the government's so-called 'consumer directed care' models. Under these models of care, citizens (Abbott's 'consumers') will be encouraged to exercise their 'freedom' to choose who provides their care, whether it be home care in disabilities or aged care or a nanny for child care instead of collectivized long day care in a child care centre. In a race to the bottom in high unemployment areas of the big cities and regional centres, many workers will feel they have no choice other than to join the "ABN workforce” to earn an income, while others will undertake such work hoping that 'being my own boss' will be better than working for a boss.

This changing employment profile of the working class in Australia is making it harder for traditional forms of union organizing to be successful. According to the Australian Financial Review article, big business now employs 2.6 million workers, small business 7.1 million people and the public sector employs 1.8 million. Union membership in Australia is about 17% overall. Union membership in the public sector is at about 40%, but declining due to the deliberate de-unionizing strategy of the Abbott Government through slashing of jobs.

While private sector union membership is now at about 12%, most of these union members in the private sector are employed by big business which is the biggest shedder of jobs in the private sector. 

It is no wonder that workers in the public sector at state and federal level are fighting hard and taking collective action to protect their jobs. At the state government level in recent years, public sector workers have won significant victories on the job security front with nurses in Victoria winning better staff to patient ratios and in South Australia, support service workers in cleaning and catering taking successful industrial action in response to the Labor Government in that state scrapping a decades long no forced redundancy policy.

However unions are also using innovative methods to organize the most vulnerable (often migrant) workers subjected to individual employment contracts of one form or another, such as in food processing as revealed in a 4 Corners program earlier this year.

However a lot more can and needs to be done. There are still too many unions who spend most of their financial resources on their rapidly decreasing core base of members, and little resources on having a go at organizing the growing number of precariously employed workers.

Unions get public support when seen organizing exploited migrant workers in a chicken processing factory or an outer suburbs construction site or a group of cleaners on the end of a pyramid employment sham contract arrangement cleaning a five star office building in Sydney or Melbourne owned by some big multinational property 'developer'. 

The times cry out for active union leaderships prepared to go out on the skinny branches with well thought out plans to win.


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