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Working from home: The future of cities and impact on the working class

Written by: Ned K. on 26 September 2020


Covid-19 outbreaks have seen major cities become virtual ghost towns for different lengths of time. 

In Australia the worst effected has been Melbourne in the last two months. However other capital cities in Australia have not returned to pre – Covid-19 levels of activity and people.

One of the main reasons for this is that many businesses in office towers in cities still have workers working from home. There are office towers in capital cities which are still at 40% or 50% occupancy levels as some business owners discover that it is cheaper for them to have workers working from home. Others are finding it difficult to persuade workers to come back to work in the office as many workers find it a better balance of work and family life to work from home.

The big business community are divided on what to do about it. 

Last week the Australian Financial Review held a Property Summit in Sydney. Big business property owners like Dexus, Jones Lang LaSalle(JLL)  and Scentre ( formerly Westfield) pleaded with major office building  tenants to order their workers back to work in the office to "kick start the economy". 

JLL boss Stephen Conry said, "If you want a strong economy you've got to have thriving CBDs...It is the office ecosystem that supports so many other businesses". 

JLL and Dexus, two of the top property landlord owners and property management companies in cities in Australia, also called on governments to make their workers return to their CBD offices. 

Public service workers make up a big percentage of office workers in cities and their retreat for health safety reasons to working from home has had a big impact not just on the share market and asset value of city office towers owned in many instances by foreign capital, but also on the hundreds, perhaps thousands of small businesses and their workers that rely on office workers as their customer base, 

For example, Scentre's flagship mall in Sydney CBD, Westfield Sydney recorded a 50% reduction in foot traffic due to workers still working remotely. That is 50% less people likely to buy their lunch at a small struggling food outlet in the food court and probably a 50% cut to the hours of cleaners clearing and cleaning the tables in the food court as just one flow on effect.

However not all the big business leaders at the Property Summit shared the same view as Dexus and JLL in pleading for business and governments to return their workers to the office.

Other big landlord property owners saw the preference of many office workers to continue to work at home as an opportunity for property owners to make money by investing in construction of new office buildings in the suburbs and regions. Retiring Stockland CEO Mark Steinert expected a permanent reduction in city office workers in capital cities of about 20% in to the future. 

Other business leaders at the Summit said that 'core' office work such as essential face to face workshops, essential group meetings would continue in city offices. 

Impact on Workers' Collective Organisation and Action

The impact of a permanent reduction of workers in the center of cities will make it harder for workers to act collectively to defend their rights at work and entitlements, especially as many thousands of workers in city jobs rely on the restrictive enterprise bargaining system to advance their interests. On the other hand, working remotely provides workers with more autonomy on a daily basis away from the eye of the boss.

The biggest impact will be on the thousands of weekly paid or casual workers in cities whose type of work does not enable them to work remotely from home. These workers include service workers of various types from elevator mechanics to the lowest paid cafe slaves or office cleaners, to the corner dry cleaner or shoe repairer or hairdresser. 

In the reports about the Property Summit held last week in Sydney, there was no mention of the impact of the collapse of capitalism's tertiary education system in capital cities due to the huge reduction in overseas students coming to Australia in 2020. 

This adds another dimension to the crisis for big capital property owners as their apartment towers built for ripping off overseas students remain empty while the number of homeless people in the surrounding streets grows.

The future of cities in the hands of the big business landlords and major tenants is a scary thought for the vast majority of the people. In the hands of the working class and allies the core of cities will become not places for speculation and profiteering by multinational property owners, but places for people to combine recreation activities, affordable housing and workplaces performing work for people's needs.


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