Discrimination report misses the mark on workforce change

By Veronica Sheen
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The recently released report of the Inquiry into Employment Discrimination Against Older Australians and Australians with Disability keeps the issues of discrimination in the spotlight. The report does very well in documenting the extent and experience of discrimination. It examines relevant policy issues in depth, describes examples of best practice and puts forward a hefty raft of recommendations.

However, the report misses the mark in one crucial aspect – its analysis of the contemporary labour market and the underlying conditions which keep discriminatory employment practices alive. These conditions are likely to strengthen in years to come rather than dissipate. They will continue to undermine anti-discrimination policy, law and practice.

As it is in the world of work, discrimination has become a means of rationing jobs and work for all who want them. The official statistics tell us that in February 2016 there were 172,900 job vacancies for 736,600 unemployed persons, a 1:4 ratio. But these figures scratch the surface.

Much job growth is in part time work, so we need to add in the numbers who are underemployed and in the market for more hours of work, which in February stood at 1,058,900. This brings the total pool of potential candidates for vacancies to 1,795,500 (a 1:10 ratio).

But applicants may also be fully employed and seeking to change jobs. This is an area that needs more research but we can get some solid idea of the pressure by a report in 2015 of 41,000 applicants for 1,250 permanent jobs in the Australian Public Service – a 1:33 ratio. Most of these vacancies were only open to existing employees so we can imagine how many more applicants there would have been if there had been an open recruitment process.

Even the most rigorous selection processes must become distorted by the deluge of suitably qualified candidates for many jobs. Why employ a good candidate aged 52 or 62 when someone 32 and good enough is also in the running? Or a well-qualified candidate in a wheelchair when there are 50 or 100 able-bodied applicants? This process of discrimination and rationing may not be a conscious one but in a busy, competitive environment, it is hard to see that there will be close attention to a fair go for older workers or workers with a disability (or any other category).

The dynamics of discrimination and work rationing have deeper roots than sheer numeric pressures. The Inquiry into Employment Discrimination report puts forward proposals for improving prospects for older Australians and Australians with a disability. These cover fostering workplaces with greater flexibility to cater for a broad based workforce, better job and workplace design, and improved access to education and training. I have little confidence that such recommendations will be widely taken up by employers. There are several factors at play here and they all intertwine.

There has been a long term drift away from permanent employment arrangements in favour of casual, contract and sub-contracting arrangements, including in the public sector under various austerity measures. This was documented by the ACTU Inquiry into Insecure Employment in 2012 which estimated that around 40 per cent of all employment in Australia is now non-permanent.

Practices to counter discrimination as proposed by the Inquiry are not going to take root in such an environment. Hiring practices become very utilitarian, with little long-term view to maintaining and investing in a diverse and accessible workforce.

Significant challenges to anti-discrimination practices are also posed by digital technologies, automation and robotics, with many predictions of massive reductions in workforces in the not too distant future. These trends mesh with increasing levels of work intensification imposing large demands on many workers that they are unable to keep up with. I documented these from my own research on midlife (45-54) women in insecure jobs in a paper that I gave at the conference on the future of work at the ILO in 2015.

One troubling aspect of this research was how heavy demands could be used justify the replacement of older workers, or those with a disability, by younger and faster employees – or even by a computers or robots! Digital technologies also facilitate outsourcing and offshoring of jobs and the development of virtual workplaces.

It is hard to understand how the Inquiry could have neglected these core aspects of contemporary workforce change, which actively reduce opportunity for diversity in work forces. It is an oversight that urgently needs to be repaired for the sake of the older Australians and Australians with a disability, who want and need decent work.

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