Insecure work versus flexibility

THAT there are termites eating at the foundations of the house that Australian workers built for themselves, not many would dispute. Despite the overall economy's happy position, the workforce feels less secure. The foundations - steady work with pay and conditions fixed by collective agreements, with an adequate dole to tide over the occasional recession - are shaky.

THAT there are termites eating at the foundations of the house that Australian workers built for themselves, not many would dispute. Despite the overall economy's happy position, the workforce feels less secure. The foundations - steady work with pay and conditions fixed by collective agreements, with an adequate dole to tide over the occasional recession - are shaky.

THAT there are termites eating at the foundations of the house that Australian workers built for themselves, not many would dispute. Despite the overall economy's happy position, the workforce feels less secure. The foundations - steady work with pay and conditions fixed by collective agreements, with an adequate dole to tide over the occasional recession - are shaky.

For a growing number, the foundations have already been whipped away. For the actual jobless, the dole is not even enough to pay the rent in most cities. For many still in the workforce, steady work is no longer guaranteed. A report for the Australian Council of Trade Unions by Brian Howe, a respected former deputy prime minister in the Hawke government, says 40 per cent of the workforce is now in ''insecure work'' - as casual, temporary or contract staff. He cites cases where workers remain on temporary contracts for up to 25 years and suggests Fair Work Australia be given powers to order such employment to be put on a permanent basis.

It's not such a big problem, says the Australian Industry Group. It puts the casual proportion of the workforce at 19 per cent and claims casual workers are compensated by higher hourly rates for the conditions they lose, like annual leave and sickness benefits. Like other employer groups, it welcomes the trend and thinks the rules should be loosened further. With more ''flexible'' workplace rules, entrepreneurs would be more able and willing to reap market opportunities, since the risk of being stuck with surplus workers would be lessened. Casual and irregular work patterns suit many workers, allowing them to devote more blocks of time to families or personal interests when required.

This is a dilemma in which both sides have a valid case. The trade unions must accept the reality of industrial obsolescence and new work practices and the competitive demands of global markets. Yet entrepreneurs cannot expect talented staff to be happy with work being turned on and off, when it means they can't take out a mortgage, get a car loan, or plan a holiday. They risk ending up with few or no skills on tap and operating in a society from which social cohesion has disappeared.

Australia has already gone some way to meet this new work era with compulsory, portable superannuation. We need more thinking about how to combine flexibility and security.

Unhappy hour uncorkedIS AUSTRALIA a nation of cheap drunks? Although price rises for most alcoholic beverages have consistently exceeded the inflation index increases over the past two decades, alcohol is, in fact, more affordable than ever. Our rising incomes over that same period mean alcohol is, on average, about 40 per cent cheaper today, relative to earnings.

A protracted wine glut has pushed down prices to the point that if you shop around wine can be cheaper than (bottled) water. What is less clear is how the recent proliferation of "liquor barns" - with their big discounts and high volume sales - is affecting alcohol consumption in the community, and, consequently, alcohol-related harm.

A new study released this week found children in one in five Australian households are the victims of, or witnesses to, physical or verbal abuse linked to drinking. At the same time there has been a discernible shift away from moderate social drinking to binge drinking, particularly among younger Australians, with a corresponding increase in alcohol-fuelled harm. Do we now need to apply a policy "brake" to alcohol sales?

The key question is whether price and availability are directly linked to excessive alcohol consumption and its negative consequences, for both drinkers and the people around them. Studies reported by the Australian Bureau of Crime Statistics found a clear relationship between street violence and proximity to licensed venues. On price, the Alcohol Policy Coalition, which represents health agencies, argues there is a strong relationship between price and consumption, citing a 5 per cent decrease in consumption for a 10 per cent increase in price. In Britain earlier this year, the Cameron government introduced a minimum price per unit of alcohol: a bottle of wine cannot now be sold for under #3.60 ($5.80), a can of lager under 80p and a bottle of spirits under a range of between #10.40 and #11.20.

Australia's alcohol tax is complex and inconsistent: the tax per stubby of beer (3% proof) is 26?, but the tax on a standard drink of low cost cask wine is only 5?. Here, there is clearly scope for review. But, despite its logical appeal, a price signal alone cannot address an entrenched drinking culture or the reality that alcohol is addictive.

Cut price liquor barns may push volume sales but this is only one aspect of a complex, public health debate in which education and personal responsibility must play an important part.

Related Articles