Flexibility as a zero-sum game

If you want to see the new flexible workforce, go to Walmart (hat-tip Tim Dunlop). As Tim’s title suggests, there’s nothing new about workers being told, from day to day, whether they’ll be wanted and for how long – look at any old movie about the waterfront for illustrations. All that’s new is that it’s being done by computer now. And flexibility, in cases like this, is a zero-sum concept: the more flexibility our bosses have to direct us, the less we have to run our own lives.

46 thoughts on “Flexibility as a zero-sum game

  1. John Humphries, the effect of casualisation will be to mask unemployment when the economy declines, not to prevent teh unemployment. Workers will be paid for fewer hours each week, or even none, while they’re recorded as being employed.

    Your comments about stable jobs seek to lampoon stability as being long term and boring, but in fact stability provides the diversity you cite as beneficial. Stability provides opportunities for weekend activity, for study and for holidays.

    As to ownership, you have the roles mixed up. It is the worker who owns his labour and is entitled to fair pay for that labour. Business owners do not have a “right” to that labour. This is a fundamental underpinning of successful Western economies.

    Regarding contracts, most are arrangements for casual work, not mutually beneficial arrangements. They are arrangements where employers shirk the traditional obligations our society has decided are appropriate for employment. Their prevalence is not an indicator of popular acceptance at all. Many jobs are only available under casual arrangements, which benefits employers and a class of useless middlemen, the labour hire firms.

    Far from being an unalloyed joy, casualisation has long term costs to the economy in stunting training, and also in protecting weak businesses from competition.

  2. the effect of casualisation will be to mask unemployment when the economy declines, not to prevent teh unemployment.

    You say it like its a bad thing. If we have a recession, isn’t it better to share the pain of deficient demand widely through underemployment rather than put it all on to a minority of unemployed?

    Ken Lovell, nobody thinks workers can swap jobs at the drop of a hat. But it is important to realise that employers can’t swap employees at the drop of a hat either – the employment relationship always has elements of bilateral monopoly. There is a well developed body of theory on this about how institutions, regulation, etc affect the way that the subsequent rents are shared. It’s by no means clear that an unregulated labour market gives the best welfare outcomes, and good reason to think that it won’t.

    But those rents are much, much larger in some types of jobs than others. And for base-level jobs requiring minimum skills which are in unconstrained supply (hence my comments about the US) the rents are relatively small so the neoclasssical view is a reasonable approximation.

    I’d love to take you up on your point about part-time work (there’s good evidence that its growth is mainly a product of increased employee rather than employer demand for it), but this comment is already too long.

  3. No need to watch old movies regarding the waterfront for casual daily pick-up – this is still by far the most common form of employment in use by the two majors and all the small fry operators.

  4. A key issue in the Australian context is in Derrida’s point (his/her first post) “…their lack of a meaningful welfare safety net …”. How will things change if welfare in Australia becomes much harder to get. The last round of income test changes has meant that Newstart Allowance is now available to some full-time workers on the Federal Minimum Wage. This means it cushions the impact of falling wages, or part-time wages. This is a kind of GMI function and is a long way from the traditional unemployment benefit concepts. This may not be a development that our pollys are really concious of – Newstart as a integral part of wages policy does seem a long way from the usual get-tough on dole bludgers rhetoric.

    If the Newstart arrangements change again, back to more of an unemployment benefit focus, then what of Derrida’s optimistic assessment?

  5. Derrida, the point is that five hours per week, or no hours at all, effectively is unemployment for people with responsibilities, who would once have held a staff position. If economic conditions get to the stage that workers are suffering this type of unemployment, disguising it is the worst thing we can do.

    There are two reasons. First, it ensures government feels pressure to correct the situation. Second, it helps to prevent the most aggressive of corporate managements from deliberately exploiting and worsening the situation.

  6. JHumphreys, “To the girl talking about the employers “rightâ€? to…” Were you trying to be flattering or patronizing?

    And by the way I think you have no idea of the meaning of coercion.

  7. #11- Melanie, what evidence? The most heavily unionised workplaces in australia now are the public sector, the manufacturing sector and the waterfront. Where’s the opportunity to compare them with non-union workplaces, as they’re closed shop (except in the case of Port Adelaide which is run by DP World, and has box rate which s**t all over the pathetic performances of the other MUA infested stevedores. Public sector? What could you possibly use as a measure of productivity? Businesses ruined? Personal freedoms eroded? Tea and or coffee consumed? I realise that health/safety standards in China aren’t up to scratch, so let’s use somewhere advanced like Singapore. How long do you think a manufacturer of widgets would last in that competitive market if subjected to the industrial extortion levied by the likes of Doug Cameron and his coterie of luddite thugs? I wouldn’t be taking too many share options. As to the worth of Perfesser Quiggin, I have no doubt it is of worth to someone, but seeing as academia exists in an artificial, market-force free environment it’s difficult to judge actual market worth.
    I’m sure his efforts to get Eliza Doolittle to talk proper were worth all he earned in the wager. As to using public money to exhort the expenditure of public money (and snaffel more of same), it smacks to me a little of self interest, and self preservation.
    BTW- no envy, old bean, I do quite nicely, despite the attentions of the fiscal fiend, and can afford a sense of smug self-satisfaction that I create wealth and employment.
    (Even when at my most fabian-addled, while in public employment I felt vaguely uncomfortable about living off the efforts of others- perhaps I always was a libertarian at heart).

  8. Tony, that’s really confused:

    1) Very few people will be on five hours or less a week for long – the fixed costs of employment for both parties tend to make this uneconomic for both.

    2) Your argument seems to me to be along the lines of “intensify the pain so something gets done about it”, which is really putting the cart before the horse. We try and avoid recessions, after all, only because they’re painful. But in fact if a large proportion of the workforce is sufficiently underemployed that they’re feeling real pain then I reckon that’s actually going to put a lot more pressure on the government than a stigmatised minority being locked out of work entirely.

  9. derrida derida,

    It’s highly economic to many employers to employ a casual for three hours here, five hours, six hours on a Sunday all at a few hours notice at most. And before long those employers who may prefer not to treat their staff in this way may be at a distinct disadvantage.

    I suggest you take the trouble to find out what it was really like for ‘low skilled’ workers even before the so called ‘Cork Choices’ by reading Elisabeth Wynhausen’s ‘Dirt Cheap’.

    The reason that the unemployed are deliberately stigmatised, by the Government and also, unfortunately, by many on this list, is to force them to accept sub-standard working conditions and pay that their parents and grandparents would never have accepted.

    Why do you presume that the working poor also don’t feel stigmatised?

  10. James,
    Where have you been? We have missed your unique insights.
    The thing is that people cannot be forced to accept work. Except in a very few cases, all of which involve clear breaches of the law of this country (both before and after Work Choices), we are not slaves and people do have free will. They will generally not do it if it makes no sense.
    Employers cannot, as you seem to imply, treat people as slaves for any length of time as they will leave and go elsewhere. Employers who treat their staff well end up with the better staff, so, logically, these are the firms that do better. Odd, really.
    Your determination to think of people as if they were no more than sheep is questionable, at best.

  11. That might be what the text books say Andrew but I’m afraid for those at the bottom of the pecking order the reality is different.

    Try telling Centrelink that people can’t be forced to accept work.

  12. Andrew, I think you may have missed the point that James was making. There needs to be regulations to stop business from continuing to lower the conditions of workers. Otherwise working conditions will drop across the board as each company tries to get a competitive advantage. Yes, a worker could leave their workplace if the conditions weren’t tolerable, but if there are no strong regulations then the next workplace they go to could be just as bad.

    “Employees that treat their staff well end up with better staff, so, logically, these are the firms that do better”. Forgive me if I’m ignorant about what’s been happening in Australia over the past decade, but haven’t many companies been getting rid of as many staff as possible in order to increase profit?

    Thanks for your valuable unique insight that we are not slaves and people have free will – I was not aware of this.

  13. Tristan,
    Thanks for your valuable insight on employment – under those conditions employment in Australia must be almost impossible to find and every employer must, logically, only be paying minimum wages to all their employees and have them working in conditions that only barely meet minimum standards.
    Of course, I could ask a mate of mine, on $80k for unskilled labour, with all meals included, flights to and from his place of work, support services and so forth how the employer is ripping his wages back to minimum and depriving him of his conditions. They must be, by what you are saying.
    If this is not the case then your whole line of argument must be, at best, questionable. If you are going to assume that they cannot move, or that employers are slave drivers then you cannot have been aware of the free will bit.

  14. Of course, when Andrew Reynolds tells us of the $80k wages for unskilled labor (wasn’t it $100k last time you mentioned this, Andrew?) he is referring to the wages paid to workers in the mineral export industry in the remote regions of West Australia. This group of workers comprises only a small minority of Australia’s workforce and an insignificant minority of the world’s workforce.

    The reason why it is possible for such a massive disparity to exist between these levels of wages and the subsistence wages paid to unskilled workers in the rest Australia should be obvious to anyone with more than ten connected neurons between their ears, that is that those workers are getting a cut for helping to dig up and export a once-only bounty of non-renewable mineral resources, which rightly belongs to all generations and not just to this one.

    This activity is devastating the world’s environment. It is fuelling the appalling pollution in Asia, including that above the cities of China, which is drifting across the Pacific Ocean in a big haze clearly visible form outer space. On top of this, it is also adding to runaway global warming. If we had a rational economic system, we would be scaling back the current frenetic rate of mineral extraction, rather than increasing it.

    Of course, in order to be able to earn some this money, workers must be prepared to uproot themselves from their friends and relatives for many months at the very least, and work hard in remote inhospitable regions with substandard overpriced housing.

    It seems that, for the relatively few workers willing and able to do this, they can be remunerated well, although probably not as well as Andrew Reynolds is suggesting.

    The rest of Australia’s unskilled workers must put up with ever-increasing costs of living, coupled with low hourly rates of pay and a steady erosion of entitlements that were taken for granted by their parents and grandparents, including shift allowance, weekend penalty rates, public holidays, long service sick pay, minimum shift lengths, predictability of work hours from one day to the next. As protection against unfair dismissal no longer exists for most Australian workers, many workers are reluctant to insist upon their legal entitlements. As an example one worker who had been underpaid by her employer was reluctant to even raise the complaint, knowing that she could easily be sacked at any time afterwards for no reason.

    For a few months I tried working as a welder, and am glad now to have left that behind.

    Once, barely an hour after I had requested of the manager that someone go to the local hardware store in order to buy some face masks before I welded steel covered with a toxic metal, my casual employment was suddenly terminated. I can’t know for certain why I was terminated. The manager who sacked me claimed that my skill level was unsatisfactory, however my foreman was surprised that I had been sacked as he had been quite happy with my performance. As it turned out, a suit covering of the whole body with a supply of pumped breathing air was the specified safety requirement, yet it appears that I may have been sacked merely for requesting a paper facial mask. The welding was completed by another worker without even the face mask.

    These examples illustrate how, as long as one has no basic protection against the sack, all other legal statutory entitlements are essentially worthless. Back then, this was a problem faced only by casual workers. Now, thanks to John Howard and his “Work Choices” legislation, this is the situation faced by most Australian workers. The fact that apparently very good remuneration is still possible for a small proportion of particularly fit young Australian workers willing to uproot themselves from their familiar environment has evidently done little to restrain the behaviour of many employers in the rest of this country.

    I have given similar evidence of this a number of times before to Andrew Reynolds, but he continues to ignore it.

    Tristan, I would earnestly counsel you not to engage in any prolonged debate with Andrew Reynolds. He will cherry pick a fact here and a fact there which appear to support his case and ignore mountains of other facts which contradict it.

    If you make the effort to refute any assertion with facts and careful argument, he will, without any acknowledgement, only repeat that same assertion a few days later.

  15. James,
    So the strong evidence that we have a better standard of living than our grandparents, despite the claimed “ever-increasing costs of living, coupled with low hourly rates of pay and a steady erosion of entitlements”, is not a fact that you would ascribe to the free market, just to the fact that we dig up land.
    On the $80K to $100K question – thanks for picking up the more conservative figure. You are free to choose either figure, James. I have seen both advertised in the last 6 months.
    If you are looking for a job an unskilled, unfit and fairly “mature” person could do – WA is also looking for truckies. All you need is a heavy vehicle driver’s license.
    BTW – if you are not willing to move to find work you are free to wallow in self-pity, if you so choose. I have moved several times and enjoy finding new friends, while keeping links with my old ones. Must be my sunny disposition, positive attitude and failure to blame others for my own misfortune.

  16. If you are genuinely interested in understanding what I mean, this discussion on Catallaxy is a good place to start. If you are wondering how I can be against legislated “good” behavior, go here. Both express it better than my somewhat meagre talents allow.
    Of course, if you want to believe that the only solution is further government action, then do not read either.

  17. Andrew, if you had been in possession of any arguments or facts that would have swayed me from my firmly held view that neo-liberalism is idiotic and simplistc, then I am sure that I would have seen them long before now.

    You just don’t seem to be able to grasp that I have already given economic so-called ‘rationalism’ considerable benefit of the doubt for much of the last 30 years (even if only because so many intellectuals, whom I used to respect, and who should have known much better, so stridently and self-confidently assured us that it was the solution to all our problems). I have long since worked out, through experience and examining the evidence for myself, that it’s claims are garbage and that they have fudged the figures in so many ways to conceal the true picture, and that’s even without taking into account its rapacious destruction of the world’s non-renewable natural resources (or ‘natural capital’ to put it in terms that an economic ‘rationalist’ should be able to relate to).

    Once again, you have dodged the hard facts I have put and have, instead, chosen to attack me personally.

    I think you are astonishingly presumptuous to have judged me, and others like, as choosing to ‘wallow in self-pity’ because I choose not to pack up from where I now live, close to family and friends and put myself, once again, through the enormous time, trouble and expense that it would take me to move to West Austalia in order to become, as a truck driver, a mindless cog, even if, for a few short years at most, possibly a well-remunerated one, in the industrial complex which is threatening to destroy our planet.

    If you had remembered previous posts, you would know that I have already many times, backwards and forwards, interstate in pursuit of both eduction and work since 1994, when I was retrenched. If you had remembered what I had written before, you would know that I have a university degree and you would understand that I do not have the temperament to perform over many long hours, boring, unchallenging tasks, which require intense focus and concentration.

    It’s typical of this government’s mismanagement of the economy that the skills of so many who have studied at University are being wasted in low-paid unskilled occupatons. I heard a statistic that 30% of the workforce are now overqualified for their current occupation. That certainly is conisetent with my onw life experience. I have a number of friends with PhDs and other tertiary quaifcations, who work as cleaners, aged care workers and delivery drivers. Many of the overqualified are, no doubt IT workers, who have had their occupations outsourced to low wage economies, and found the market here overwhelmed because of the abuse of the ‘skills migration’ scheme by ruthless unscrupulous employers here, coming on top of that stupid beatup in 1999 by IT employers of the supposed IT industry ‘skills crisis’.

    Actually, I do consider that I have a ‘sunny disposition and positive attitude’ and don’t have a tendency to unfairly ‘blame others for my own misfortune.’ In fact, if you knew me, you would know that I am unusually careful to assume responsibility to assume responsibility for all of my decisions, and always have tried my hardest to get on with the job even in the face of the most extreme heartbreaking adversity. There have been many times in my life, where I have worked 7 days a week for weeks on end in order to get the job done.

    In spite of all the bullshit claims of neo-liberalism, these qualities are not rewarded nearly as much as the ability to self-promote, to lie, to cheat, and to shift the blame for one’s own incompetence onto to others.

  18. James,
    Interesting that you choose to ignore your own advice (to Tristan, above) – and so early on a Sunday morning, too.
    On the personal abuse bit – I am only responding mildly and after much provocation, to some of the things of which you have accused me – including deliberate lying and worse. If you are sensitive to personal abuse, James, my advice would be to not dish it out.
    On the education bit – “…I heard a statistic that 30% of the workforce are now overqualified for their current occupation…” I would not be surprised if that were the case.
    Some degrees being issued in this country do not give practical applications and so, unless they are good enough to conduct ground breaking research in their fields or become a teacher or lecturer then driving a taxi is a good option. Additionally, many people end up simply not liking what they do and go and do something else, as I have several times. Job requirements also change – you do not need a degree to be a company director, so a qualified geologist would be overqualified for that. My father did an apprencticeship in a field that he no longer uses.
    But then, doctors driving taxis also happens elsewhere – even in a “socialist paradise”.
    Not every “problem” is a problem – it is just what happens in a dynamic changing economy. Personally, I am happy that changes occur. Not many happened in 1066 or earlier.
    Blaming the government merely means that we are saying that we are not willing to or capable of changing things ourselves. Personally, I do not try “…to shift the blame for [my] own incompetence…” it is mine to treasure, deal with and get around. That is the beauty of a free economy. I am just really glad I was not born in Cuba or North Korea. You may wish I had been.

  19. Andrew,

    I don’t know where I have accused you of deliberate lying, lately. Certainly, I believe that I have shown you up a number of times for having used dishonest debating ploys. If you think that, by having done so, I have somehow provoked you and that you are therefore entitled to go on implying that I am lazy and unmotivated, then I definitely have no interest in maintaining any dialogue with you.

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