‘Labour’: not another commodity

In 2009 the Uniting Church in Australia adopted a statement called An Economy of Life: re-imagining human progress for a flourishing world. This statement describes the Church’s concern that our understandings of progress and wellbeing are now determined by a global economic system geared to the making of profit for a few at the expense of both the current and future wellbeing of all people, especially the most vulnerable, and the wellbeing of the planet.

The statement was an expression of our concern that the economy, rather than being recognised as a tool to support our wellbeing, has become an end in itself: if something is good for the economy, then it is good, full-stop; and something is ‘good for the economy’ if it promotes continual growth in spending and /or profit. This system that prioritises economic growth above all other indicators of human and ecological wellbeing is now so deeply entrenched in our worldview that it becomes almost impossible for most us to even imagine any alternative. Those that do try to challenge this dominant worldview are most often charged with being hopeless idealists, dreamers and ‘out of touch’ with reality.

The Uniting Church will wear those charges because we do believe that another way is possible. Our vision for a different kind of economy arises from our faith in God’s will for a just, peaceful and reconciled world. And so we believe that we can shift our focus from the making of profit to the growing of healthy communities which support the flourishing of all people.

Work is critical in this endeavour. A Christian vision of ‘labour’ emphasises the role that work plays in providing meaning and purpose in people’s lives, connecting them to their communities and the wider society and giving them a sense of agency over their own life. People who suffer long-term unemployment, who experience injustice at work or whose work is demeaning suffer in many ways, and their families suffer too.

‘Labour’ must never be just another commodity in the economic sphere. A Christian vision of work has at its heart the need for people to find dignity in work and receive fair and just reward for their work; and while work is important, we must also ensure that work does not consume our time for leisure, the building and maintaining of relationships and participation in community life.

There is enough evidence, some of which we have drawn on in our submission, to know that in Australia we have serious problems with rising levels of casual work and under-employment. Casual employees now represent 25% of the Australian workforce – one of the highest rates amongst OECD countries. These casual employees are not protected by common law provisions or statutory regulations and despite the common belief that casual employees receive higher hourly rates of pay, only a small number in fact receive compensatory loading.

It is not surprising that 59% of casual employees would prefer to be in more secure work. The detrimental effects of casual work include poor economic security, the inability to secure housing, lack of training and skills development, a greater risk of moving into unemployment and work being prioritised over other life interests.

The Uniting Church is concerned for low-paid and vulnerable workers. Our submission has drawn attention especially to the plight of Indigenous Australians and refugees in the labour force – people for whom decent work and just employment rewards and conditions are absolutely critical for their health and wellbeing as individuals and as communities. We have also drawn attention to the continuing issue of gender discrimination and it is, of course, women who are already disadvantaged who suffer most the effects of casualisation and under-employment.

As a society we cannot begin to challenge the dominant destructive systems and structures that determine how we live together until we decide that we will accept the realities of life. Employment policies in this country will not change until our governments decide that they are ready to truly see what is happening. One of the most important steps in addressing the problems of insecure work in Australia is for government to change what they must know are the out-dated and ineffectual definitions currently used to monitor employment statistics. While we have seen some recent policy initiatives to help address gender inequity, there is more to be done here too. Reform of the tax and transfer system must not be relegated to ‘the too-hard basket’, attention must be paid to the plight of refugees in Australia, many of whom are highly skilled and experienced but who cannot find appropriate and secure work, and significantly the Government must abandon the ‘one size fits all’ approach to Indigenous policy and honestly engage with Indigenous communities in genuine consultation to discover local solutions.

Australia’s policies must focus on producing an economy that works for people and not against them, and that serves the interests of all in the community without sacrificing the needs of those already vulnerable. It is possible, we know what to do, but it needs to begin by naming the interests and confronting the powers. I urge the Committee to be courageous in its report. The Uniting Church in Australia will be standing with you.

Opening Statement: Independent Inquiry into Insecure Work Sydney, 28 February 2012