Precarious Work, Pandemics and Australia’s Future – Let’s Not Forget the Link

This is a guest post by Michael Quinlan & Dr Elsa Underhill (links added).

In mid- August 2020 Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews labelled insecure work as toxic and argued a fundamental policy reset was required into the future.  He stated:

Insecure work is toxic. There is nothing good about insecure work, and when this is done, when this virus has been beaten, we will need to commit ourselves to do something really significant about it. It is no good for anything, for families, for a sense of security [and] for public health, for any purpose. We have a lot of people who work very hard but have no safety net to fall back on and that is just not something we should settle for .

(Guardian 16 August 2020)

The observation generated little publicity and was soon forgotten as the Victorian COVID outbreak caused deepening concern across the nation. But the first major Australian political leader to call precarious work for what it demonstrably was should start a long overdue public debate.

The pandemic demonstrated just how vulnerable societies dependent on precarious work (or the informal sector in the poor countries) are to both the spread of and difficulty suppressing highly infectious diseases like COVID-19.  As Victoria emerges from an extreme lockdown, it is important to not lose sight of the role of precarious employment in spreading COVID19 across the Victoria community, and how easily it could do so again if nothing is done to secure more stable employment patterns.

Precarious work arrangements, including multiple jobholding (so strongly support by management consultant Peter Drucker who labelled it portfolio employment), helped the virus to spread rapidly in the aged care sector, abattoirs and other workplaces even after lockdowns. It also crippled industries built on precarious work like tourism, hospitality and entertainment, and has highlighted the dangers of a dependence on short-term temporary immigrants in horticulture.

The problem with having people on low and irregular incomes is that they must work to live irrespective of the circumstances, making it difficult to change their work practices or to cease working when feeling ill. Federal and state governments did belatedly recognise this with special payments but this is only viewed as a special contingency measure. It will not prevent precarious employment from resurging post-covid19.

And it wasn’t as if this was predictable. Public health officials and academics had been warning of a major global pandemic for decades, and that weaker public healthcare infrastructure championed by neoliberalism would make it more difficult to deal with such outbreaks. This was ignored by governments both conservative and labour/social democrat besotted by neoliberalism.

Less well-known was that the debilitating effects of insecure work on the spread and difficulties suppressing infectious disease was identified as early as the 1870s when disease outbreaks (like scarlet fever) occurred amongst families making garments at home, with the disease also spreading via ‘tainted’ clothing that killed wealthy children living nowhere near the outbreaks. The Lancet pointed to the connection in 1876 while also acknowledging earlier references to it.

By 1900 a series of government inquiries in the UK, USA and elsewhere had established the connection. And it wasn’t just infectious disease. The same inquiries established a clear link between precarious work (and it was called that!) and increased risk of injury, physical and mental illness as well as wider effects on public health.

This was one of the impetuses for improved public health and anti-poverty measures. The rise of secure work after World War 2 made these dangers seem as if they were part of a distant past but not so.

Casual employment and subcontracting arrangements had never disappeared from some industries like agriculture, meatworks and construction but from the mid-1970s it began to grow and spread. The push was led by some industry groups/employers, the emerging labour hire industry, right-wing policy think-tanks, neoliberal economists and government agencies like the Industry/Productivity Commission.

 The growth was increasingly facilitated by changes to government policies (like privatisation/outsourcing) and changes to regulation (beginning with Paul Keating but accelerated by the Howard 1996 Workplace Relations Act).

This was a global shift notwithstanding union opposition who were themselves weakened by the trend. Especially after 1985 academic researchers began to increasingly examine the health and safety impacts of insecure work arrangements. There is now an avalanche of studies, including a large number using very robust data sets and methods. The vast majority have found precarious work associated with worse health, safety and well-being of those doing it but with flow on effects to the wider community. Precarious work arrangements, especially subcontracting, was also linked to a number of workplace disasters in chemical plants, oil refineries, oil rigs, mines and in aviation (outsourcing aircraft maintenance). And of course to this we can now add the pivotal role of outsourced hotel quarantine outbreaks that has already led to hundreds of deaths. The failure to learn from past failures is breathtaking but also heart breaking.

This disturbing evidence has only mounted with time, increasingly referred to in government inquiries (like the Victorian Inquiry into the Labour Hire Industry). But only in the midst of a pandemic has one of our political leaders had the courage to put the emergency in a wider context. What the pandemic represents is an extreme case of a wider array of problems that precarious work poses for the community in Australia.

Those like the Productivity Commission and (with some exceptions) economists who were so ardent in their advocacy of employment flexibility have in no way publicly changed their position. They have simply gone silent as have many like-minded politicians. A number have criticised the Victorian Government’s hard lockdown as damaging for business without questioning whether a different set of work arrangements might be part of the solution now and into the future.

In addition to the evidence we now have of the damaging effects of precarious work there are two other points supporting a fundamental policy rethink.

First, the pandemic should not be viewed as a one in a century event. There is a growing risk of global pandemics due to overpopulation and increased human/animal interactions and further there are other global challenges/disasters (like those linked to climate change) that will expose the vulnerabilities of societies overly dependent on precarious work (some flexible work arrangement will continue in areas like harvesting but with differences).

Second, the pandemic offers the chance for a fundamental reset of the Australian economy to a mix of activities more compatible with maximising secure work, including promoting manufacturing especially in the regions and reshaping the tourism industry to focus more on domestic tourists for example. Other industries will need to reconfigure their work arrangements and past experience indicates this is entirely feasible. This opportunity should not be lost. An Australia founded on a strong commitment to fairly paid and secure work wherever possible will be both healthier and more sustainable in these challenging times.

Michael Quinlan is an Emeritus Professor and member of the Industrial Relations Research Centre UNSW, and visiting professor at Middlesex University, who has been researching the health effects of precarious work for over 25 years.

Dr. Elsa Underhill is a Visitor at Deakin University in Melbourne, with expertise in the health and safety effects of labour hire employment and temporary migrant work.

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