by Alison Pennington
[Originally published in The Age, 05 November 2020]
Lockdowns in Victoria have made job polarisations starker than in other states. Entire layers of workers, previously interacting in the flows of the daily commute, the morning coffee, dropping kids off at school, were suddenly pulled apart and isolated from each other. Connected only by the occasional masked ‘hello’ on the street.
Australians share the experience of fighting COVID adhering to strong public health measures. Europe has entered new lockdowns while Australia has just celebrated the first day without a case of community transmission in almost 5 months. But as Melbourne emerges from these lockdowns, we acknowledge this public health success has not come without immense sacrifices. Healthcare and other frontline and essential workers exposed themselves to the virus to help keep us safe. Hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers in customer-facing sectors were pulled off the job to stop the spread.
But COVID-era work sacrifices are not simply dependent on what industry you work in. It also matters on what work conditions people had coming into the pandemic, with those in insecure jobs the first to be discarded in the crisis.
The pandemic has shone a light on the growing scourge of insecure work. Around half of all employment in Australia has one or more dimensions of precarity including casual, temporary, part-time insufficient-hours work, self-employment. Precarious work contributed to the community spread of disease, such as in the private aged care system where widespread practices of multiple jobholding led to virus transmission between facilities.
Overnight, businesses and workers moved fast to implement new remote-working models to enable employees to work productively from home from March. Hundreds of thousands of private homes were transformed into workplaces. The year is ending and in Melbourne we haven’t gone back to the office yet, and likely won’t for some time. Public health orders, employer demand to reduce crisis-era labour costs, and workers’ preferences means working from home will become a permanent feature of the new world of work. 81% of workers at home want to keep working from home in some capacity.
Relaxation of top-down workplace practices seems one silver lining of the new WFH regime, as employers are forced to shift their focus to output rather than presence. Employers could well learn people work better without others breathing down their necks.
It’s true there’s much to like about WFH. I’ve finally unpicked my blue-collar work ethic to white-collar work, understanding getting the best from your brain doesn’t mean smashing it for 8 hours straight. I sometimes intersperse work with playing music, with the piano sitting next to my work desk.
However, as well as moving to Melbourne just in time for the lockdown, my neighbour started renovations – a months-long bespoke ‘mate’s job’, no swift commercial job. Working life is waking abruptly to circular saws followed by endless days of a ‘soothing downpour’ of white noise through my headphones. It is sitting in my closet under a blanket doing radio interviews.
Needless to say, I’d like to return to an office – at least on those very loud days. There’ll be Melbourne workers like me; home workers who want some hybrid between home and external office work. The opportunity to share workspaces with others.
People able to work from home are more likely to be professionals in permanent, full-time, and better paid work. In many ways, we have been protected from the worst health and economic impacts on workers. Though this doesn’t mean high economic and social costs haven’t been incurred by the WFH workforce. Risks and costs are mounting, including upfront and ongoing costs of running a home office, long work hours, income and job insecurity for employees with high caring demands, and the absence of national work, health and safety measures.
Australians’ propensity to work excessive overtime could be accelerated by our new home workplaces. The ACTU found 40% of people working at home are doing more hours, and nearly all are not being compensated for them.
Keeping up with our jobs while confronting the constant anxiety of a global pandemic crisis has hurt many people’s mental health. Half of those working from home report increased stress, depression and self-harm. UK research suggests we face a tsunami of musculoskeletal workplace injuries as workers make do with dining tables, coffee tables, and desks ill-designed for eight or more hours of work.
This is why we need a new system of workplace protections for workers facing increased isolation and the risk of work intensification. France introduced a law requiring employers implement software prohibiting emails from being sent outside office hours – this one I like!
But under current workplace laws, employees remain powerless to get out of the home and return to a formal workplace post-pandemic without a corresponding entitlement to return to the office.
As the recession deepens, millions of unemployed and insecure workers will continue to face great hardship. The fiscal costs of this mass displacement will be huge, but longer-run social costs – manifested in poverty, exclusion, despair, non-participation, declining health – will be even greater.
Working to build more secure labour markets is about reducing risks that major events don’t hit the most vulnerable hardest. Job creating investment, quality public education and skills systems, income supports, and extending minimum labour standards like collective bargaining are critical to an inclusive post-COVID recovery.
The pandemic is our clarion call to create not just more jobs, but good quality jobs that reconnect millions to the experience of decent, ongoing work. Though we’re fatigued, this is where the work really starts.
Alison Pennington is the senior economist at the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work. @ak_pennington