A little while ago, I attended a national meeting of rail industry representatives, called to discuss the development of a national code of operating rules. The fact that national rules have not been developed in 160 years of Australian railways makes the task daunting. What makes it even harder is the fragmentation of the industry into dozens of operating companies and hundreds of contracting firms. Getting agreement amid the myriad of competing commercial interests would be almost impossible but for the fact that public outcry over declining safety standards means that rail managers are facing stringent safety laws.
As an industry trainer, I’m well aware of the massive training task that will result from the introduction of new procedures. I’m also well aware that there are not nearly enough qualified trainers. It was quite fascinating to watch senior rail bosses exchanging polite banter about poaching each other’s skilled operations staff, knowing that soon they’ll be crawling to governments to beg for money to actually train people for a change. One of the most insidious consequences of neoliberal competition policy and privatisation has already hit rail companies. Across the country, there are shortages of trained operations staff. Whether it’s commuter train drivers, signalling staff or maintenance technicians. Without permanent overtime rosters and long hours, much of the industry would be at a standstill.
Passing the buck. What rail managers have known for several years has now been realised throughout the economy. The country has a huge shortfall of skilled workers. Health workers, teachers, hairdressers, electricians, building workers and chefs are all in demand, but there’s no one to fill the jobs. Neoliberalism turned governments from providers of services to purchasers of services. What this meant was that the task of replacing retired workers — and dealing with demands of a growing population — was transferred to companies competing for government contracts. You don’t have to be a Marxist to realise that one of the first things to be cut, in the interests of the bottom line, is training. Unions have a constant battle to get people off the job to maintain and upgrade their skills. What has happened in many industries is that long-term training programs have disappeared.
Privatisation weakened unionism, which meant not only that training was gutted, but that falling pay rates allowed shortages to be covered by overtime. It also meant that already low-paid apprentices fell further behind. Apprenticeships have all but collapsed in many industries, with the notable exceptions of the building industry, and some of the larger manufacturing companies, both having strong, well-organised unions. It’s no accident that a recent comprehensive study in the Northern Territory and one commissioned by the Council of Australian Governments linked skill shortages with low pay. Why suffer for years on apprentice wages when even McDonalds pays better?
When they handed over public services, governments also washed their hands of responsibility for maintaining the country’s skills base. Yet the reason for a centralised education system is precisely because competing capitalists will not provide it. The ideologues who proposed and implemented the globalisation of the Australian economy simply ignored this. “The market will fix it,” they claim, despite the fact that it never has before. Education, including adult education, only ever happens if the government organises it on behalf of all of society.
The bottom line is that the break-up of integrated government authorities meant the demise of the centralised training schools, such as the high voltage linesperson centre at Newport rail workshops. This facility used to train A grade electricians throughout Victoria. Now it’s the deteriorating home of a few dozen rabbits. When the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works and the Snowy Mountains Authority were abolished, Australia lost the world’s two premier civil engineering institutions. Think of that next time your water supply fails because of a burst main. And remember that you, as a taxpayer, are lining the pockets of a profiteer to fix it.
Punishing the poor. Unions and employer groups agree that the shortage of skilled labour is around 70,000 positions. Allowing for variations in training times, this means that Australia is at least two hundred thousand training years short of even maintaining a skilled workforce. The Howard Government’s response has been to draft laws which will severely affect the lowest paid workers. Its amendments to workplace laws are aimed at breaking unions and driving down real wages. At the same time it plans to toss hundreds of thousands of people off welfare. Both these measures are a crude attempt to intervene on the demand side of the labour market. The cuts to wages and conditions will help bosses counter demands for higher pay in sectors where labour is shortest. The cuts to welfare are partly an attempt to flood the market with desperate workers who — with limited capacity to collectively organise — will be forced to accept low wages, poor conditions and job insecurity.
The welfare attack is a punitive, cost-cutting measure. From July 2006, everybody currently on the Parenting Payment will be forced to seek work when their youngest child turns six. They are the lucky ones, because they can retain this more “generous” benefit until their child turns 16. After July 2006, everyone applying for the Parenting Payment will be offered the lower-paid and more severely income-tested Newstart payment. People applying for the Disability Support Pension who are deemed to be able to work more than 15 hours per week will also be forced onto Newstart. Yet single parents with school-age children, together with disabled people, suffer more work-related discrimination than anybody except Indigenous Australians.
There is not currently a labour shortage in less-skilled, low-paid sectors. While the average official rate of unemployment might be about 5%, in many rural centres and outer suburban neighbourhoods the rate for adults is well over 10% and still hovers around 17% for young unemployed. Flooding the labour market at the low-paid end will simply add to the growing army of working people who cannot afford rent, schooling or even proper food. The poor are to be punished for the crime of poverty. Just as has occurred in the United States, many will end up in overcrowded jails. For people with illnesses and disabilities, the misery will only be exacerbated by cuts to Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
Unsurprisingly, this attack on welfare receipients is not accompanied by money for new childcare places or for training, apart from a few token federally-run Technical Colleges which will do nothing to ease the skills shortage. Employers will continue to avoid training wherever possible. Which is why some sections of the ruling class have raised the possibility of recruiting “guest workers,” who would cost little in terms of training, have fewer legal rights and, of course, be paid less than local employees. Such schemes must be rejected. All who live and work in this country must be granted full citizenship rights!
It’s the bosses’ problem — make them pay. Hitting working people might satisfy the ideological fantasies of the rabid Right, but not one new worker will be trained under the government’s proposals. Neither will it be fixed by shortening training programs or slashing standards, as some government MPs have suggested. Lowering standards means compromising on quality and safety.
All of us have a part in organising and running this complex economy. But some of us get paid a lot less than others. The reason for these wage differences is the operation of the capitalist market, which will pay just as much as it has to and relies on government to intervene when collective organising becomes too threatening. Sexism and other divisive capitalist ideologies also serve to create unequal treatment.
Karl Marx, the great analyser of how capitalism works, made a distinction between simple and complex labour. Simple labour involves little education and low technological skills. Complex labour involves education and higher technological skills. It’s fairly clear that there are almost no work roles anywhere in the country that involve simple labour. A country which relies on technology for almost every economic function needs a highly trained, well-educated workforce.
Which is why slashing wages and tossing people off welfare can’t fix the problem.
Part of the coming campaign to overturn Howard’s anti-union laws and welfare attacks is the fight to get more people into higher paid, skilled jobs. We need to get people off welfare, where this is appropriate, pay them an award wage and equip them with the education and skills that will enable them to join the workforce.
Such a scheme should be worker-controlled, meet the highest standards and be funded by a levy on all employers, weighted so that the biggest employers pay most. The reason for the skills crisis is the negligence of employers and the neoliberal policies of their tame governments, ALP and Coalition alike.
Access to proper training and a high-paid job is a right for all of us, but we should not be made to pay for it with our jobs, wages, conditions or welfare benefits.