The travails of the future

The Trepalium TV series  produced by Arte France creates a confronting view of a future society based on a huge divide between the 20% employed, the insiders, and the 80% unemployed, the outsiders, who live impoverished lives as outcasts on the other side of the wall in the Zone. The outsiders also include anyone with some kind of incapacity which is not tolerated in the world of the insiders. The series builds a portrait of a future society that certainly has some form in the present – which is exactly its intention as its director Vincent Lanoo says in an interview: I would say Trepalium is less a satire than a distorting mirror of our times.

By all accounts a trepalium was a device of torture in Roman times and the word is the Latin cognate of the word travail. In English, travail has distinct associations with hardship and suffering (as does the word labour) and in French of course it simply means work although also with its Latinate associations.  So the TV series is pointedly concerned with the subject of work and how the way it is organised and allocated translates into a society of a dystopian future with its links back to George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World notwithstanding its originality.

As an employment researcher, the series provocatively brings into focus a number of  present realities in the world of work. The starting point of course is the immense divide between the employed and the unemployed and the terminology to describe this is exactly that of much present policy discourse around active, inactive and activation. In fact current Australian response to unemployment is jobactive (in lower case for some reason). This fits perfectly with the mindset of the Trepalium society and would do George Orwell proud.

In the Trepalium universe, the actives are those  20% insiders who are there because they work hard and deserve to be there. The 80% outsiders are  in the Zone because that is where they deserve to be on account of their inferiority and  personal deficits.  The first episode brings into focus the brutality that underlines the process of determining who is in and out with little to do with anyone’s actual attributes but rather the measures they are prepared to take to get where they want to go and to sustain their position on the inside. In his interview for a director’s job in episode 3, Ruben must show himself prepared to fire a good worker also a colleague and friend to secure the position. This friend also faced the prospect of being evicted to the Zone.

The outsiders are treated with contempt and disdain by the insiders and the political system is devised to maintain the status quo through violence and cunning. The government only opts to engage in a reconciliation process with the outsiders through the provision of 10,000 jobs on the basis of pressure from the world bank to secure the funds it needs.

The series also shows how automation has transformed work through labour replacement so robots are in every day  use but also how technology affects human workers.  Izia, one of the principal characters in the series, who takes over an information processing job is constantly being called to account for her pace and output.

This is a reality of much employment now.  Michael Marmot in his 3rd Boyer lecture  on working life describes the way that a man he interviewed, Alan, worked in a pick- and- pack warehouse with constant monitoring of output through an electronic device he had to carry with him and the loss of points if he failed to keep up the pace. Ultimately Alan was unable to sustain the momentum so lost his job.

In my own research this scenario was also played out in the work histories of a number of people I interviewed. I give several examples in a paper that I gave at the ILO last year. Of course such performance measurement means that the standard can be lifted when there is a need to get rid of workers as mentioned in my interviews. (I know a lot of teachers who say this sort of pressure is on them in the education system with ever increasing and impossible to meet demands!). Work in many fields has indeed veered increasingly towards a model of hardship and suffering – the trepalium – than a source of satisfaction and reward.

Trepalium also has an interesting insight into how gender could play out in the workforce and society of the future. There is still evidently a massive gender divide in the workforce with men and women doing quite specific tasks. But women clearly do well and assume many roles of authority with the Prime Minister, a ruthless woman who will do whatever it takes to retain and strengthen her power base.

The Trepalium series is a thought provoking sci-fi series that hits a raw nerve in the way it projects into the future possible scenarios that could emerge from current realities of work and society. Of course, it is a worst case scenario that rules out the many positive scenarios that could also be actualised in the future. Still a dystopian drama such as Trepalium is not entirely out of the realm of possibility with current levels of inequality and the potential for this to become worse in the 21st century as Thomas Piketty in Capital explains.










Inequality and workforce casualisation – a Piketty perspective

Over the last 2 weeks, I have twice been asked for commentary on workforce casualisation.  The first time for the ABC’s Canberra morning program (20 June) and Tuesday night (5 July) between 10 and 11pm, for the ABC’s Nightlife program broadcast nationally. This extended session was undertaken with Melbourne University’s Professor Mark Wooden and included talkback from listeners. The podcast is here.

While “jobs” of course were a major area of raw promises during the election, there wasn’t any talk about what type of jobs or the quality of jobs by any of the candidates or parties.  I wrote an article on just this for the 2013 election. While much recent jobs growth has been part time rather than full time and underemployment is high at around 8% (in addition to 5.7% unemployment)  in Australia, there wasn’t really debate about any of this in the election.

The term casualisation implies a process in train or in transition to a workforce that offers less permanent, secure jobs and more casual, short term jobs. In fact, as Professor Wooden pointed out in Tuesday night’s session and in this Conversation article, casualisation as a process in Australia is over. Australia’s tally of casual workers defined by the ABS as those lacking paid leave entitlements, has remained pretty much at around 20 per cent of the employed workforce for the last 20 years. So it is not in train, it has happened. This can lead to something of an outlook along the lines of ‘getting over it’ or ‘getting on with things’ the way they are, even seeing an opportunity or advantage in this aspect of flexibility in our employment landscape.

However, a highly casualised workforce which we now have in Australia is a continuing cause for concern at many levels and as such rightfully needs to be kept on the public policy agenda.  I have written widely about casual and insecure employment and made a number of conference presentations. It was the subject of my PhD thesis. My research and writing document the implications of casual and insecure jobs in people’s lives, how they got into those jobs and the likelihood of getting out of them into something better. It was not an optimistic scenario. But my thinking about casual employment has been further advanced of late by one critical reading – Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.  

Needless to say, there is much to be taken from Piketty’s book which examines the drivers of contemporary inequality in historical perspective and the increasing concentration of wealth in the upper 10% of income groups in many countries and further concentration in the upper 1%, .1% and .01%.  My interest was especially piqued in what he had to say about wage inequality. He doesn’t talk about precarious or casual employment per se but in a sense that doesn’t matter. What is important is that wage inequality has grown considerably over recent decades in large part due to the tremendous takings of managers at the upper echelons in employment hierarchies with stagnant wage growth for the rest. This begs the question of the role of casual employment in fostering these outcomes.

Regardless of how adequate the minimum wage is, and Australia’s is relatively high by international standards, the high rate of casual employment has a dampening effect on wage growth through a variety of ways. For a start a good hourly wage rate doesn’t mean that a worker  derives an adequate income. That is entirely predicated on the number of hours worked. With 8% of the workforce reporting insufficient hours of work, it is reasonable to assume this is because they don’t make enough income from the hours of work they do have. The high rate of casual work in Australia linked to the related dimension of insufficient hours contributes to income inequality.

A second factor in how casual work contributes to inequality is that it is not positively linked to occupational mobility.  While casual jobs can lead to permanent jobs, (as explained in this paper) depending on various factors, there is also a high rate of transition to joblessness and a high rate of long term continuity in the casual job. Piketty confirms that there is considerable delusion about the extent of upward social and economic mobility based on ideals of a meritocracy in contemporary societies. In fact, there is much entrapment in low end jobs, and fewer opportunities for advancement than we like to think.

Casual workers are less likely to be unionised so they have low levels of representation and voice. My own research also showed how disempowered casual workers can be in terms of control over their work and work schedules. These factors also have an effect on income inequality. Piketty discusses the tremendous advantages in terms of setting their own pay that the supermanagers in many enterprises are able to leverage – almost the reverse situation of the average isolated casual worker unable to predict if she will have sufficient hours of work to get by tomorrow or next week.

Casual employment certainly plays an important role in fostering inequality in Australian society and is interconnected with the nature of Australia’s social welfare system in terms of low level benefits and tough welfare to work  requirements. How these issues will play out in years to come and in relation to the next government in Australia’s parliament remains to be seen.










Discrimination report misses the mark on workforce change

A version of the following post is published in the Right Now journal of human rights. 

The recently released report of the Inquiry into Employment Discrimination Against Older Australians and Australians with Disability helps to keep the issues of discrimination in the spotlight. This report does well in documenting the extent and experience of discrimination. It examines relevant policy issues in depth, examples of good practice and puts forward a hefty raft of recommendations.

However, the report misses the mark in one crucial aspect – its analysis of the contemporary labour market and the underlying conditions which keep discriminatory employment practices alive. These conditions are likely to strengthen in years to come rather than dissipate. They will continue to undermine anti- discrimination policy, law and practice. This is because they are at the heart of how the contemporary economy and labour market operates.

Discrimination is no more no less than a means of rationing scarce resources – jobs and sufficient work for all who want them. The official statistics tell us that in February 2016 there were 172,900 job vacancies to 736,600 unemployed persons so a ratio roughly of 1:4  vacancies to job seekers. These figures of course just scratch the surface. We need to add in the numbers who are underemployed wanting more hours of work which in February stood at 1,058,900. This group is potentially in the market for jobs that offer more work. This brings the total pool of potential candidates for vacancies to 1,795,500 so a 1:10 ratio.

But applicants may also be fully employed and seeking to change jobs. By any measure there is no shortage of candidates for many jobs. Anecdotally, I frequently hear of very large number of candidates across many fields of employment –  50 to 150 or more applicants for jobs in professional fields such as school teaching and academia, generic occupations such as administration and customer service, and similar in trades. This is an area that needs more research but we can get some solid idea of the pressure by a report last year of 41,000 applicants for 1,250 permanent jobs in the Australian Public Service agencies of Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support Agency. So a ratio of 1:33 vacancies to applicants. The vacancies were only open to existing employees so we can imagine how many more applicants there would have been if there had been an open recruitment process.

We need to also consider that many of the job vacancies counted by the ABS may be part time rather than full time. Indeed labour force statistics for April reinforce that much recent job growth has been in part time work which also translates into more underemployment and more pressure on any vacancies especially full time ones.

Such statistics have an enormous bearing on processes of job allocation. How do employers respond to very large numbers of job applicants? Even the most rigorous selection processes must become distorted by the deluge of suitably qualified candidates for many jobs. It stands to reason that employers then focus on personal attributes of candidates such as age and disability (or other factor) to sort out who they want working for them. Why employ a good candidate aged 52  or 62 when someone 32 and good enough is also in the running? Or a good candidate in a wheel chair when there are 50 or 100 able bodied applicants? This process of discrimination and rationing may not be a conscious one but in a busy, competitive environment, it is hard to see that there will be close attention to a fair go for older workers or workers with a disability (or any other category).

The dynamics of discrimination or work rationing have deeper roots than sheer numeric pressures. The Inquiry into Employment Discrimination report puts forward proposals for improving prospects for older Australians and Australians with a disability. These cover fostering workplaces with greater flexibility to cater for a broad based workforce, better job and workplace design, and improved access to education and training. I have little confidence that such recommendations will ever be widely taken up by employers. There are several factors at play here and they all intertwine.

There has been a long term drift away from permanent and full time employment arrangements in favour of casual, contract and sub-contracting arrangements. This was documented by the ACTU Inquiry into Insecure Employment in 2012 which estimated that around 40 per cent of of all employment in Australia is now non-permanent. Practices to foster a broad based workforce that counter age and disability (and other) forms of discrimination as proposed by the Discrimination Inquiry are not going to take root in such an environment. Hiring practices become very utilitarian with little long term view to maintaining and investing in a workforce what less bothering about equal opportunity.

Globalisation of economic systems also translates to globalisation of labour markets with ever increasing capacity for employers to offshore and outsource work. This is facilitated by digital technologies which enable the growth of virtual workplaces where the workers can just as well be in Manila or Mumbai as in Melbourne or Sydney. How do anti-discrimination policies and practices fare under these conditions?

Digital technologies, automation and robotics also enable labour replacement with many predictions of massive reductions in workforces in the not too distant future. This trend meshes with practices of work intensification with large demands on many workers that they are unable to keep up with. I documented these from my own research on midlife (45-54) women in insecure jobs in a paper that I gave at the conference on the future of work at the ILO last year. Certainly some of the jobs I documented could be replaced with technology or offshored or outsourced but one troubling aspect was how the demands could be used to dispose of workers especially if they are older or have a disability, to be replaced by younger and faster workers. Such workplace demands (KPIs) can ostensibly be implemented in pursuit of productivity but have real life negative consequences for certain groups of workers. These are hardly encouraging developments in achieving the recommendations of theDiscrimination Inquiry or overcoming the experiences that the Inquiry documented.

There is also one other important factor that erodes the capacity to achieve the recommendations of the Inquiry – the ongoing pressures on public sector employment in Australia and trends towards casual and contract arrangements.  This was a strong theme of the ACTU Inquiry into Insecure Employment in 2012 but I also picked it up in my own research on midlife women (45-54) in insecure jobs. Many of these women had lost secure and permanent public sector jobs in the past due to downsizing processes with funding cuts and were unable to regain similar level jobs as older workers. They had subsequently become ensnared for the long term in casual jobs, some of these also in the public sector, with no way forward. We have not had a discourse on austerity in Australia as in post GFC Europe  but arguably it is an important factor in considering the nature of our labour force and capacity for pursuing the type of goals that the Discrimination Inquiry has set out.

It is hard to understand how the Inquiry could have not considered these core aspects of contemporary workforce change in its deliberations and in terms of its recommendations. It seemed like a report that might have been written in 1996 or 1986 in relation to a labour market that no longer exists. There is a desperate need for the issues of discrimination against older workers, workers with disabilities (and others) to be taken up in relation to the real pressures around employment opportunities, the growth of precarious work, government austerity measures, adoption of digital technologies, and workplace transformations that actually serve to dispose of rather than maintain diversity in work forces. It looks like these issues went into the too hard basket of this Inquiry.








Standing up for rights

11 May update – a version of the following post incorporating the 3 May Budget changes is published on the Power to Persuade social policy website.

The original 27 April post is here:

In April, I attended the conference Solving Our Employment Crisis  organised by the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU).  The conference consisted of speakers in leadership roles from various organisations including the trade union movement, but most importantly the compelling voices of unemployed people themselves, from the membership of the AUWU.  The conference brought into focus the hardships they face trying to survive on Newstart Allowance, well below the poverty line,* with the added burdens of  the punitive and unhelpful activation requirements to maintain eligibility, including the ineffective  work for the dole** program which has become such a large portion of the government response to unemployment. The keynotes speakers provided context and affirmation of the need for the campaign work of the AUWU and for greater collaboration between organisations on the issues raised at the conference.

The AUWU brings a much needed new perspective on unemployed workers’ rights – and a platform for action. It is noteworthy that the entity has framed itself as a union, in accordance with some historical models rather than as a self help or representative organisation. This is an important distinction and raises many issues about where it sits within the broader trade union movement and within the framework of labour rights. While policy organisations such as the peak body ACOSS advocate for a better deal for unemployed people, they do not offer membership to the unemployed or a platform for activism. Most of the additional advocacy for the unemployed comes through service organisations who deal with the unemployed as clients but not as members or decision-makers. Most of these organisations’ policy work comes from a service and income support improvement perspective rather than a fundamental reform agenda.

Social protection is of course an element of the mandate of labour rightsIts central element is a basic payment to individuals while out of work and while they search for work. But in Australia as in other OECD countries, the income support for unemployed people has become conflated with a range of other objectives principally that of ‘activation’. Indeed, the latest iteration of the Australian government funded employment service system is termed jobactive (written in lower case for some reason).

The concept of activation is hinged on a view of unemployed people as requiring specific stimulus to search for and find work due to their deficits in this regard. It is heavily defensive against unwarranted and undeserved welfare receipt. To this end, the Australian government work for the dole policy** has also mandated work itself as a condition of income support after 6 months, imposing 25 hours per week for people under the age of 30 and 15 hours for other workers up to the age of 60. This marks a significant departure from the post war formulation of unemployment payments as a minimal survival payment for temporary hard times. It marks a return to systems of statute or enforced labour that should have ended with feudalism, notwithstanding its continuing practice in some parts of the world. 

I contend that work for the dole is a form of enforced labour in that it is a condition attached to receipt of a survival payment, no more, no less. It is not a question of whether unemployed people should be making an effort to find work including through training, but  work for the dole embeds an unemployment payment, in a paradigm of working for it outside a labour law framework. This surely must contravene international labour covenants and should be strongly opposed by the trade union movement.

There are  conditions attached to the non profit and government organisations offering work for the dole places to unemployed people. These include prohibitions on replacement or reduction of hours of existing or prospective staff and encouragement of projects which could not otherwise be undertaken. There are overwhelming moral hazards entailed in these conditions. I have no confidence that the prohibitions could not easily be breached. And it is highly problematic for new projects to be started on the basis of the unpaid labour of unemployed people. If an organisation does not have the funds for work that it would like undertaken, this does not mean it has license to use unpaid and unemployed people to get things done.

I have worked in an organisation where an unemployed young man was taken on in a work for the dole placement. My observation was that it was largely a waste of both the organisation’s and the young man’s time. It also brought into sharp focus the dreadful inequality in a workplace where a worker is not paid, not because they are a volunteer, but because they are unemployed and forced to be there. Anyway, the simple fact is that work for the dole doesn’t work in employment outcomes but to governments this does not seem to matter. Work for the dole as part of the activation method of dealing with the unemployed has a high symbolic value and constitutes an important part of the ongoing assault on social welfare. International evidence on the effectiveness of generic activation policies is not strong so there is no other explanation for why a government would go down this track.

The Australian Unemployed Workers Union has taken on a major challenge in representing unemployed people and fighting for their rights. It has taken form at an important moment in Australian social history and its formation is indebted to its founder Owen Bennett. There are many issues that the AUWU will need to take forward in its agenda as discussed at last week’s conference which was an important step in consolidating its profile. I have also written about some of these such as the role of employment service providers in pushing unemployed people into low wage, casual jobs (also the topic of a paper I gave at the ILO in 2013).

Over the last couple of months, I have been following the powerful youth protest movement in France now termed Nuit debout (staying up all night, standing all night) against the changes to labour laws which the socialist government led by President Hollande has been trying to implement. But the movement is taking on a range of grievances and inequalities along the lines of the Occupy movement. Standing up for rights, through time honoured methods of protest, organising, and civil disobedience, is sometimes the only way of getting action when governments fail to do what is right by segments of its citizenry – at this time in Australia, unemployed people.

*The Henderson Poverty Line for a single person in the workforce including as unemployed, and  to cover housing costs sits at $520 per week.  Newstart is $263 per week, with a maximum rent assistance subsidy of an additional $65 per week, so altogether a maximum payment of $328 per week or $192 below the poverty line.

**  Post script –  4 May – The work for the dole program was modified in the 3 May Federal Budget making it a requirement after 12 months on Newstart rather than the current 6 months. It is gratifying to see an acknowledgement in the budget papers that people will be better off spending their time in the first 12 months of unemployment looking for a job. However Work for the Dole still exists and needs to be abolished. A new program has been established for youth under the age of 25 involving internship arrangements with a small additional payment of $100 week on top of Newstart/Youth Allowance and wage subsidies . My own view is that it is worthwhile having a range of different arrangements and choices (but not work for the dole) in place to help young people so in general I am supportive of the program. I note that the ACTU have criticized the internship plan due to the lack of a minimum wage outcome but ACOSS support it.  I understand the ACTU perspective but I do think there is a significant dividing line between the age groups 15-19 and 20-24 as I noted in this conference paper. A short term internship for 16-19 year olds with a top up payment may be helpful as they make choices about work and education.

Social protection the first priority for economic policy

This post was republished on the Power to Persuade social policy website.

With the Australian federal budget due to be delivered in May by the Turnbull government, there is the usual round of pre-budget lobbying in the months leading up to it. I have done many budget submissions in former policy roles in NGOs so know the process very well.

One strong voice about the direction of the budget, comes from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) through its head, Kate Carnell. The ACCI position is that Australia needs to cut spending especially in social services and income support. And further if we don’t, according to ACCI, we may be heading down the path of economic crisis of Greece or Spain. This point was taken up by the CEO of the Grattan Institute, John Daley, in an article in the Conversation. Daley argues, as does the ACCI, that there is a major discord between spending and revenue which is creating a significant problem with public debt over the long term with the potential for an outcome for the economy along the lines of Greece.

In this vein, I was intrigued to hear what the Chair of the National Bank of Greece, Professor Louka Katseli had to say about the Greek debt crisis and the remedies imposed on it by the Troika (EC, ECB and IMF) at a recent London School of Economics seminar. Professor Katseli is certainly an eminent commentator on economic policy by any measure and like Yanis Varoufakis has held a ministerial post in Greece while bringing a high level of academic expertise to the table.

The analysis of Professor Katseli as revealed in the LSE seminar is broadly consistent with that of Varoufakis but adds  further depth and insight into the background to the Greek crisis – and the responses to it. Her analysis exposes the weaknesses in the case for fiscal rectitude (essentially austerity) as advocated by ACCI and the Grattan Institute for Australia.

But for a start, it is incorrect to attribute the source of Greece’s fiscal problems to ‘overspending’ by invoking a parallel, albeit a loose one as these organisations do, with Australia.The fundamental weakness in the Greek economy and the growth of its huge debt, according to Professor Katseli, was generated over the very long term by lack of investment in the tradeable good and services sectors which ultimately led to a massive current account deficit.

The external debt problem was then exacerbated late in the 1990s with Greece’s entry into the Eurozone. With the Greek economy essentially made up of very small businesses there was little capacity for improved competitiveness through price cuts as would be the case for the large firms with their huge product markets which dominate the economies of northern Europe. But the Troika’s debt repayment demands were based on the northern European model rather than the Greek model. And as part of the Eurozone, there was no capacity in the Greek economy for currency devaluation as a means of improving competitiveness. 

The cuts in public spending – the austerity measures -which were the essence of the loan repayment deals brokered with successive Greek governments by the Troika, meant a drying up of financial liquidity in the economy (spending power) which supported many businesses. As a result, 250,000 small businesses closed down in 5 years after 2009, unable to cover fixed costs and make a basic profit. This meant a heavy contraction in the economy. Wages fell by 40% and pensions by 70%. Unemployment of course greatly increased from 7.3% in 2008 to its current level of 25% as a result of the small business closures and massive retrenchments in the public sector. Greece’s GDP fell by 25%, which has meant the public debt to GDP ratio rose from 120% in 2009 to 200% in 2015. Austerity has caused the economy to crumble not regenerate.

Katseli endorses the point made by Varoufakis in an article for the Monthly last year, there were also serious problems of the democratic accountability 0f the Troika. This is a very troubling aspect of the austerity measures imposed on Greece.

The most compelling argument that Professor Katseli makes however – and one that is too seldom heard in economic policy discourse – is that social protection must be the foremost consideration in any debt reduction strategy. In her own words: “it is not enough or sufficient to think about fiscal consolidation or debt restructuring. But you really need to put at the core of the agenda social policy and to have an effective social protection system which is prerequisite for sustainable public finances…You really need to combine fiscal adjustment with social policy”. 

As it stands 44% of the Greek population are now at risk of poverty as a result of a 32% reduction in household disposable income and of course the massive increase in unemployment. There has also been a rise in extreme poverty and even starvation – what has been described by some as a a humanitarian crisis.Social protection isn’t a sideline issue for economic policy, it is actually the most important dimension of it.

So as the advocates of public spending contraction in Australia in the name of balancing the books have their day in posing the Greek crisis as a potential risk for Australia, they should equally consider the price of the austerity measures both on the economy and the population. Social protection comes first.













Le chômage – France’s long, hard road

France is the world’s most popular tourist destination and sees around 83 million foreign tourists a year. From time to time I am one of them as for a couple of weeks over June and July 2015. While the visit consisted of the usual melange of touristy activities, I was struck by the large numbers of homeless people and begging in Paris and the other towns I visited, perhaps more than any other time I had been there. I also had the unpleasant experience of a military evacuation of the Gare de Lyon Part Dieu while I was in transit to Geneva for a conference at the ILO –  a reminder of the tensions besetting that society as it attempts to ensure the safety of its citizens – and tourists – in troubled times.

One of the most difficult and ongoing challenges confronting France however is its persistent high rate of unemployment (le chômage) . On Monday, President Hollande presented his emergency plan for dealing with the continuing high rates of unemployment at over 10% with particularly high rates for youth at close to 26%Hollande is in the invidious position coming up to an election in 2017 in which unemployment has significantly increased since taking office from Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012 – with 650,000 more people registered with the central employment agency Pôle Emploi.

The frustrations of the French with the situation have also been seen as contributing to the massive vote for the Front National in the regional elections in December 2015.

Hollande’s plan d’urgence consists of an additional 500,000 vocational training places for unemployed people, growth in apprenticeships, and incentives for small to medium enterprises to take on additional workers. The plan also seeks to foster more flexibility of employment conditions including with respect to working time within companies as a way of encouraging jobs growth. (A good summary in English is available on the NY Times website).

The plan is bold, large and expensive at 2 billion euros and has come in for considerable criticism. Time will tell whether or not it will have any effect in reversing the current trends and reversing President Hollande’s fortunes.

In this regard, I was greatly interested in an article published in Le Monde Les pistes d’économistes pour faire baisser le chômage (the economists’ ways of reducing unemployment) a few days ago outlining the various positions of economists on the effectiveness of responses to unemployment. The article notes that unemployment has been high in France for much of the last 40 years barely ever going down below 8% and is now close to historically high levels. In addition, youth unemployment is especially high in France with very large numbers of young new entrants to the labour market each year – 30% more than in Germany.

There has been little that successive governments both socialist and conservative have been able to do about it. The article then examines the various mainstream strategies for dealing with unemployment. None of these, I note, consist of direct job creation through the public sector.

  1. Reducing wages specifically the minimum wage which in France is one of the highest in Europe. Not surprisingly the economists consulted argue that the high minimum wage is an obstacle to hiring although the ABC’s fact check on this issue suggests that it is not a very strong factor in reducing unemployment. It is not part of Hollande’s plan.
  2. More and better targeted training along the lines that President Hollande has recently announced. The verdict by the experts on the efficacy of this approach is not very encouraging with questions raised about whether more training corresponds to needs and whether there is real value from the vast additional expense.
  3. Increasing apprenticeships for young people along the lines of the German model which has been very successful. However the experts say that France cannot be compared with Germany where population ageing is more advanced so there is greater opportunity for younger people to step up into enterprises for on the job training. It is also noted that the German enterprises themselves have considerable control over vocational learning in Germany so training systems are very closely oriented to business need.
  4. Encouraging the growth of small business and start ups. One economist says that there are barriers in France to new players in certain sectors of the economy.
  5. Reducing unemployment payments especially the length of entitlement of insurance payouts and to increase activation requirements. This accords with the tough and punitive welfare to work approaches in anglophone countries including the UK, Australia and the USA where unemployment payments are highly conditional on high level job search. This is not in Hollande’s plan.
  6. Simplification and better evaluation of measures to reduce unemployment.

The article points to the enormous complexity and difficulty of reducing unemployment in a country where structural (as opposed to cyclical) unemployment has been high for most of the last 40 years. This was consistent with my own analysis of youth unemployment in Australia which has hovered around 13% since the late 1970s.

Mr. Hollande’s emergency plan is a major quest to do something about unemployment. I hope for the sake of the unemployed people of France, including the desperately poor who I saw last year,  that it has  some success and serves as a road map for other countries struggling with high levels of unemployment years after the GFC. While Australia’s unemployment rate is much better it is still high at close to 6% and must be seen in relation to our high level of underemployment (insufficient hours of work) at around 8% so a total of 14% of the workforce with no or not enough work and that doesn’t count all those who have given up looking. Australia also has exceptionally high rates of casual employment.

As a footnote, I met a young woman, a stall holder, at a street market outside the Gare de Montparnasse in Paris last year.  She was in her mid 20s and explained that despite her skills and her university degree she thought there was little hope for her to find a professional job. She made a living as a waitress and selling second hand goods at the street market. She also expressed deep frustration with the situation in France and, bizarrely hoped she could come to Australia to work. It is hard to see how exactly the President ‘s plan d’urgence will help this young woman. Jobs growth is really the key.

Secure work part of the equation

The shocking stories and statistics on the levels of violence against women in Australia revealed over recent days has been a wake up call for concerted action at many levels. The Australian situation is consistent with broader international patterns as reported by the United Nations.

My research in recent years on women in low paid and precarious employment has an indirect but important link in this issue.

While the discussion on violence against women has emphasised that it crosses all socio-economic levels, I know from my research that lack of a good and reliable income from employment means women stay in bad domestic situations longer than they wish to.

For example one woman told me that she was only able to move out to a flat when she had a work contract for 8 months. A steady job and reliable income is often a prerequisite to obtain a lease on a property. In addition, with housing affordability being such a large issue in Australia, women in low paid, casual jobs are simply not able to afford rent what less to buy their own flat or house. As much of women’s employment is casual at around 25% of total employment it is not surprising many women will be constrained in undesirable domestic situations.

My doctoral research involved 38 midlife women in precarious jobs. Around half were single parents. Their situations told of the large risk and great economic cost of single parenthood. Poverty and hardship amongst single parents is well documented. At the core of these problems is lack of access to well paid secure employment. This risk factor of single parenthood reduces women’s capacity for economic independence.

Satisfactory levels of income and assets including own housing, means women do not need to rely on the resources of a male partner. They have greater choice over their own lives and the lives of their children. And this means they have a greater capacity for escaping a domestic violence situation. Not to discount the broader policing and social service issues, a well paying secure job is a big part of the equation too.