Voices from working Australia

With more than 40,000 participants, the ACTU’s Working Australia Census was one of the biggest surveys of workers in Australia’s history. Its findings are a fascinating snapshot of contemporary working life.

ACTU President Ged Kearney says the results of the Working Australia Census highlight the real issues, concerns and aspirations of the majority of Australian people.

‘For them, what matters are not esoteric economic arguments or political gamesmanship, but tangible things like good wages and conditions, dignity and respect at work, time with their family and friends, and the daily struggle of making ends meet,’ says Ged, a former nurse and ANF Secretary.

She said census respondents were overwhelmingly union members who were committed to their jobs and their communities.

‘Union members are good people. They are community people. Half of them are volunteers outside of work, compared with a third of the general population. They are dedicated to their jobs and are hard working.’

Nearly half (48.3%) of respondents had done voluntary work in the previous 12 months, compared to the Australian Bureau of Statistics figure of 34% for the overall population. A third of Working Australian Census respondents said they remained in their current job because they felt it allowed them to positively contribute to the community.

Squeezed by work

The findings show that many people are working additional hours to cope with high workloads and a lack of resources:

  • 61% work more hours than they are paid for;
  • 73% are regularly contacted outside of work hours, about their job;
  • 58% have paid for work-related expenses and not been compensated.

Ged sees this as a ‘productivity squeeze’, meaning that workers achieve productivity through unpaid work and greater pressure.

‘For workers, productivity isn’t an abstract expression. All too often it means unpaid hours, phone calls out of work hours and doing more for less. Flexibility is actually a code for giving employers the ability to cut hours, or even sack you, when it suits them.’

The survey reveals that the demands of work are translating into less-than-flattering attitudes towards senior management:

  • More than a third (33.8%) of respondents said that senior managers in their organisation did not take a genuine interest in improving conditions at work.
  • A third (32.7%) also disagreed with the statement ‘senior management is competent and has a plan for the future’.

The feminisation of unions

Ged said the Working Australia Census picked up a substantial shift in the profile of the typical union member.

‘The blue-collar base of the union movement remains strong, but there is a shift in overall membership towards female workers in jobs like teaching, nursing, the community sector and the public service,’ she says. ‘Twenty years ago about one in three union members was a woman. Now, our gender split is close to 50-50, and in 2010, for the first time, union density among women was higher than for men.’

Three struggling groups

The Working Australia Census identified three groups that are struggling to balance the pressure of work, family and finances:

  • The sandwich generation – a group of women who have carer responsibilities for children and parents, while also working full time. The single biggest thing they said would improve their work life was to have the flexibility to balance work and family.
  • The forgotten blokes – men aged 45 to 64 who said they were currently not working, but were looking for work and having difficulty finding it. More than half (52.2%) said they couldn’t find work because employers thought they were too old.
  • The insecure youth – workers under the age of 25, employed and living out of home and facing labour market and financial stress. 27.7% said they were finding it difficult, or very difficult, to get by on their current household income.