Underemployment skyrockets to 1.1 million Australians

Mike Pezzullo Secretary Department of Immigration and Border Protection and Minister Senator Michaelia Cash appeared before Senate Estimates at Parliament House in Canberra on Monday 27 February 2017. Photo: Andrew Meares  Photo: Andrew Meares
Mike Pezzullo Secretary Department of Immigration and Border Protection and Minister Senator Michaelia Cash appeared before Senate Estimates at Parliament House in Canberra on Monday 27 February 2017. Photo: Andrew Meares Photo: Andrew Meares

Kate Zizys, 46, has been underemployed her entire working life in Australia.

Earning less than $20,000 a year from casual work, she is one of 1.1 million Australians who want more hours of work than they are getting.

New figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show the official unemployment rate has increased from 5.7 to 5.9 per cent.

"I'm tertiary educated and have been in a casualised system my entire working life," Ms Zizys said.

"I have had long periods of underemployment that border on unemployment. There's not enough money or security in casual jobs."

During the seven years she worked at a university in Victoria, Ms Zizys was unable to get a permanent job. She ran a print-making studio in a fine arts school and tutored Indigenous students.

"I got breast cancer in 2013 and that was it for me," Ms Zizys said. "You have no job and no leave entitlements.

"After my treatment I managed to land a job in New Zealand for two years. That was the only full-time job I've had."

Since returning to Australia in April last year, Ms Zizys says she has applied for 200 jobs and is still looking for full-time work. She now lives in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria where housing is more affordable.

Structural shift

Workplace researcher Professor John Buchanan from the University of Sydney business school said the number of people who are underemployed had increased from about 176,000 in the late 1970s to 1.1 million, according to ABS figures released last week.

In 1978 more people were unemployed than underemployed - 430,000 unemployed compared with 176,000 underemployed.

Today, more than 748,000 are unemployed and 1.1 million underemployed.

While unemployment reflects cyclical booms and busts in the economy, Professor Buchanan said underemployment was more structural in that employers were creating more jobs with part-time hours.

"Underemployment has been slowly ratcheting up," he said.

"It is not just cyclical, it is structural, which means employers are building jobs which are dependent on part-time work and often people can't get enough hours.

"It is not just a sign of a weak economy, it is a structural problem in the quality of the job offers."

Unusually high

Professor Buchanan said Australia has one of the highest levels of part-time work anywhere in the OECD.

"People say that is a sign of how flexible our labour market is and people are getting more work life balance. But Australia also has one of the highest levels of underemployment - people who are part-time unemployed."

The Australian Unemployed Workers Union has highlighted the plight of Ms Zizys as part of a new campaign it is launching this week to show the growing size of the underemployment problem.

The AUWU's president Owen Bennett said a focus on the unemployment rate had distorted a bigger picture of the labour market.

He said the plight of underemployed Australians was at risk of being "swept under the carpet".

"The government has to stop covering up our employment crisis and start fixing this before it gets any worse," Mr Bennett said.

"Matched against the government data on job vacancies, there are 17 job seekers competing for every job vacancy compared to a ratio of 4 to 1 using current ABS data on unemployment."

'Significant transition'

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash said the federal government is implementing a range of policies to deliver economic growth and job creation "which will result in more employment opportunities for all Australians".

"Australia is experiencing a significant economic transition which is resulting in job creation in industries which involve higher levels of part-time and casual work," she said.

"Despite this transition, Australia's economic growth is currently higher than any of the G7 economies which points to positive future employment outcomes."

The federal government acknowledges the level of underemployment has been trending upwards over the last decade.

It partly attributes this to the movement away from mining and manufacturing, towards service industries. The growth in part-time jobs also reflects the increase in female participation in the workforce since the 1980s. There has also been an increase in the number of young people in full-time education combined with part-time work.

More recently, growth in part-time employment has reflected stronger employment growth in service industries which offer a high proportion of part-time jobs.

Companies have also reduced hours worked instead of making workers redundant in a softer labour market.

Professor Buchanan said Sweden had demonstrated that achieving full employment was also related to the political priorities of governments.

This story Underemployment skyrockets to 1.1 million Australians first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.