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.








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