Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Flexibility and Labour Market Structures: The Role of Employers

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Flexibility and Labour Market Structures: The Role of Employers

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Like many other industrialised market economies, Australia has experienced persistently high unemployment and a rapid rise in non-standard employment. There has been a shift in labour market power away from employees to employers arising from increasing employment insecurity, casualisation, underemployment, contracting out, high unemployment and legislative changes. Part-time employment, which tends to be low paid, casual and lacking in training and career opportunities (Probert 1995: 2), is the fastest growing category of employment. The weak labour market power of employees may also be shown by the difficulties employees face in finding secure employment. The ABS conducted a study over 1994 to 1996 of 875,000 job seekers. This group started 878,000 jobs between May 1995 and September 1996; 89 percent of these jobs lasted less than 12 months, 66 percent were casual, and 48 percent were part-time (the categories overlap). Of those working in September 1996, only half were in permanent employment (ABS 6286.0).

Labour market restructuring is affecting some groups more than others (Rimmer 1994). Full-time employment opportunities for youth have collapsed (ABS 1994; Whitfield and Ross 1996) and older workers face the longest periods of unemployment (ABS 6286.0). Migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB) are also experiencing above average unemployment rates (up to 23% for those with poor English language proficiency). Manufacturing employment (which has an over-representation of migrant workers) was hard-hit by the recessions of the early 1980s and early 1990s and NESB migrants lost more jobs than other manufacturing workers (ABS 6203.0 October 1997). Women are also experiencing labour market disadvantage. Women have lower unemployment rates but are also more likely to be underemployed or discouraged job seekers (Whitfield and Ross 1996). They account for a majority of casual and part-time jobs and experience horizontal (occupational) and vertical ('the glass ceiling') segregation (ABS 6203.0). Further, the gradual erosion of sex-based pay inequity over the 1970s and 1980s has ceased (ABS 1994; Hall and Fruin 1994).

This negative picture of the labour market is in contrast to the positive predictions for labour market restructuring embodied in post-Fordist theorising and some versions of human resource management. Product market changes are said to be demanding a competitive strategy based on high quality jobs (Piore and Sabel 1984; Pfeffer 1995). Under these accounts of labour market restructuring, employees are highly skilled, flexible, empowered, and secure. In Australia, the empirical foundation for this optimistic view is less obvious than the pessimistic view beyond 'best practice' examples and evidence within enterprise agreements of clauses emphasising the importance of training and career paths. Labour market statistics show that employers' training efforts have risen but the evidence also shows that training is provided more selectively and is likely to be directed towards professional and managerial employees rather than tradespersons and labourers (Fraser 1996). Perhaps the pessimists and post-Fordists are both right but are talking about different groups of workers. That is, perhaps the distribution of labour market advantage and disadvantage is becoming increasingly differentiated.

Is it feasible to explain labour market restructuring by examining employers' labour utilisation strategies; flexibility in particular? Flexibility literature is a useful starting place for labour market analysis because most variants of flexibility include consideration of the relationship between labour utilisation strategies and labour market structures (albeit not always as their main object). Also, descriptions, prescriptions and predictions of changes in the nature of work in the 1980s and 1990s have centred on flexibility (Pollert, 1988: 50) and have substantially influenced Australian industrial relations policy (Campbell 1990; Harley 1994). …

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