Worshipping broad economic growth as the measure of progress has masked the growing inequality and narrowing access to skilled jobs that is quietly dragging Australia down, according to a leading unionist.
Meredith Hammat UnionsWA secretary believes that behind the picture of an affluent nation that Australia presents to the world is an undercurrent of narrowing opportunity for younger people, particularly women, from middle and lower income families.
The nation’s challenge is to think beyond economic growth to its traditional “fair go” for all, indicated Ms Hammat.
Overseas unionists may be surprised to learn that Australia has moved into the top 20 nations suffering income inequality.
Ms Hammatt recently told an industrial relations conference that nowhere is the trend more apparent than in her home state, resources-rich Western Australia.
Proceeds from two decades of a massive resources boom have flowed to high income earners, but a growing mass of people have missed out, making it the second worst of Australia’s states for income inequality.
Despite the boom, West Australians are missing access to skilled jobs, the key to a secure future. WA has the lowest rate of formal vocational training of Australia’s seven states, a similarly poor rate of people with tertiary qualifications and falling numbers of trade apprenticeships - despite a growing population.
Yet employers’ demand for foreign guest workers under the nation’s 457 Visa scheme grew at nearly three times the national average in the mining states of WA and Queensland since 2009-10.
Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman found up to 40 per cent are underpaid. At the same time, youth unemployment in WA has skyrocketed.
“Many employers are now getting used to accessing a large pool of highly dependent workers and having a ready supply of skilled labour, without …having to do anything to help train or skill those workers,” Ms Hammatt said.
WA apprentice numbers in heavy trades of automotive, engineering and construction are the weakest in Australia, with about half of those who start apprenticeships in private industry dropping out before completion.
The training gender mix is lopsided towards males, reflecting a wider loss of the potential of women for their own lives and the good of the nation.
And the deregulated, privatrised, user-pays model of tertiary education proposed by the Federal Government would hit hardest the lower-paid graduate occupations such as nursing and teaching - dominated by women.
“If deregulation becomes reality, there will also be a …financial burden on women into their 30s which may affect career choices and their decision to have children at all,” Ms hammatt said.
She said the reality that mothers work shorter hours for less pay than males will compound the impact of female graduates being saddled with huge debt.
In WA, the gender pay gap is notably wider than the rest of Australia, particularly for part-time work which women dominate.
It’s widest among technicians and trade workers, male-dominated areas where apprentice numbers are falling and 457 Visa, non-citizen labour dominates.
“Discrimination is a real and continuing part of the mix that contribute to women having lower wages,” Ms Hammatt said.
A gender work study by WA’s Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre concluded there was a price to pay for the financial and employment opportunities which West Australians said they were satisfied with compared to other Australians.
“…West Australians are significantly less satisfied with their feeling of safety, being part of the local community, and the neighbourhood on which they live,” the study found.
Ms Hammatt said that beyond a viable overall economy, fair access to skilled jobs which were reasonably paid were essential to Australia’s social and human wellbeing.
She said Australia needed to get serious about workplace policies which maintained a healthy population, with the flexibility for meaningful part-time work to give parents a true balance between labour and raising their children.
The distortions in skilled work and lack of access to it went beyond foreign workers, women and the young to also disadvantage indigenous Australians and those with disabilities.
Proper policing of workplace laws and stronger regulations and better workplace planning were part of a wider picture.
“The challenge for Australia is to create a cohesive society that is engaged, with positive opportunities for growth, access to training and fair working conditions for skilled workers,” she said.
“We are people, not cogs in an economic wheel.”