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Australian labour market weakens in July 2018

The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Labour Force, Australia, July 2018 – today which show that the Australian labour market weakened in July 2018 and one is lead to think that the June 2018 improvement was an outlier after several months of poor results earlier in the year. It looks like the labour market has settled back into that weak pattern. Overall employment growth was negative but this was all down to the teenage segment, where there were substantial losses of part-time work. Unemployment fell marginally but only because the participation rate fell by 0.1 points, which meant that the labour force contracted by more than employment. Overall, my assessment is that the Australian labour market remains in an uncertain state, but is on the weak side, and, is still a considerable distance from full employment. There is room for some serious policy expansion at present.

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Framing matters – the unemployed and the farmers

At present, Europe is sweltering in both relative and absolute terms as the harsh summer ensues. In Australia, we are in drought after an unseasonably warm and dry Autumn. Drought is no stranger to Australia but the frequency and circumstances of the current period coupled with what is going on around Europe (including the cold spell I was caught up in Finland in February while the North Pole struggled with heat) tells us that weather patterns are changing. There is now credible research pointing in that direction. But the drought in Australia is demonstrating another thing – the hypocrisy of the way we deal with unemployment and the unemployed vis-a-vis other groups in society that we endow with higher privilege, especially in this neoliberal era. Australia is experiencing a serious drought and Federal and State governments are tripping over each other to offer very large support packages to farmers and their communities to tide them over while their income dries up (excuse the pun). There appears to be no limit to the support these governments are announcing. The Prime Minister is wandering around rural Australia promising this and that to help farmers make ends meet. Whenever I see these special assistance packages being handed out to the rural sector, which is politically well-organised, I reflect on the plight of the unemployed. With unemployment at elevated levels in Australia, the decision to hand out economic largesse to the farmers reeks of inconsistency. The unemployed have diminishing chances of getting a job at present and the income support provided by government is well below the poverty line. That poverty gap is increasing and the Government refuses to increase the benefit claiming fiscal incapacity. The comparison of the vastly different way the government treats farmers relative to unemployed highlights, once again, that the way we construct a problem significantly affects the way we seek to solve it. The neo-liberal era has intensified these inconsistencies which have undermined the capacity of public policy to achieve its purpose – to improve the welfare of all citizens. The research question is: Why do we tolerate such inconsistent ways of thinking about policy problems and their solutions?

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Australian labour market – stronger employment growth but still uncertain

The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Labour Force, Australia, June 2018 – today which show that the Australian labour market gained some strength after several months of poor results. Overall employment growth was stronger with a robust increase in full-time employment, although the overall increase in monthly hours worked was modest. Unemployment fell marginally with the unemployment rate steady at 5.4 per cent. However, participation rose by 0.2 per cent and employment growth was strong enough to absorb both the underlying population growth and the new entrants into the labour force. The teenage labour market delivered mixed results – with overall employment rising disproportionately but full-time employment declining. A further grey cloud came with the rise in underemployment by 35.1 thousand to 8.6 per cent. The broad labour underutilisation rate rose to 13.73 per cent. Overall, my assessment is that the Australian labour market remains in an uncertain state and is still a considerable distance from full employment.

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New Labour Account framework in Australia provides new insights

The Australian Bureau of Statistics released a new labour market framework on Tuesday (July 10, 2018) – Labour Account Australia, Quarterly Experimental Estimates – which will improve statistical analysis and allow new conjectures to be examined against the evidence. This blog post is really an exploration on my behalf of this new dataset and I know it is rather dry. But that is part of my work and it has to be done to build an evidential basis for the claims I make about this and that. I am still exploring the framework and will obviously use it to advantage (hopefully) in the future but for now here are some of the compelling insights that emerge from it. The first obvious new insight we can gain is to divide total filled jobs (employment) into Main and Secondary jobs. This allows us to assess the quality of the change in overall employment. Up until now we have considered employment in terms of persons employed. But now we can work out how many persons are employed in more than one job and where those jobs are. It provides an excellent check on statements made by politicians etc about the number of jobs being created and their quality.

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US labour market – muddling along and real wages growth goes negative

On July 6, 2018, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – June 2018 – which showed that total non-farm employment from the payroll survey rose by 213,000 and the unemployment rate rose by 0.2 per cent to 4 per cent in June 2018. The employment-population ratio was unchanged in June at 60.4 percent and has been largely stable since February 2018. The Labour Force Survey data, however, showed that employment only rose just 102 thousand in June 2018 and was accompanied by a substantial rise in the labour force (601 thousand) on the back of a surge in participation (up 0.2 points), which meant that total unemployment rise by 499 thousand. The broad labour underutilisation measure (U-6) also signalled weakness, rising by 0.2 points. There is still no evidence of a wages breakout going on although wages growth for blue-collar occupations has surpassed the white-collar occupations over the last 8 quarters. However, the data shows that real wages fell in June 2018 by 0.4 points. Taken together, the US labour market is showing no definite trend up or down at present and it is still some distance from being at full employment.

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Employer groups in Australia lied about the impacts of penalty rate cuts

Sunday (July 1, 2018) was a very sad day in Australia because it marked the second phase of the cuts to penalty rates for workers in the lowest paid sectors of the Economy. The Fair Work Commission (FWC), which is the quasi-judicial tribunal that sets wages in Australia including legally binding minimum wages and conditions, bowed to the relentless pressure from employers (and the conservative federal government) and decided to cut penalty rates for some of the lowest-paid workers in Australia. The cuts which will eventually savage take-home pay for these workers were phased in from July 1, 2017 with the final cuts coming in 2020. The phasing in process where saw Sunday wages will fall from 200 per cent to 150 per cent over that period was justified by the FWC because the cuts would be extremely damaging to the prosperity of the low-paid workers impacted. Anyway, we have just passed the first year of the cuts and this week marks the second phase. Given we received the latest employment by industry data in the last fortnight, we can undertake some detailed analysis to see whether there is any evidence to support the employers’ claims that the cuts would benefit jobs and hours of work in the impacted sectors (Retail Trade and Accommodation and Food Services). You will not be surprised to read that the opposite seems to be the case, although the generally poor results for the industries that are sensitive to the penalty rate cuts cannot be attributed directly to those cuts. But the evidence is very strong – the cuts to penalty rates have hurt low paid workers and driven then towards or over the poverty line with no positive effects being evident in terms of employment or working hour gains.

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Real resource constraints and fiscal policy design

There is an interesting dilemma currently emerging in Australia, which provides an excellent case study on how governments can use fiscal policy effectively and the problems that are likely to arise in that application. At present, the Australian states are engaging in an infrastructure building boom with several large (mostly public sector) projects underway involving improvements to road, ports, water supply, railways, airports and more. I travel a lot and in each of the major cities you see major areas sectioned off as tunnels are being dug and buildings erected. Not all of the projects are desirable (for example, the West Connex freeway project in Sydney has trampled on peoples’ rights) and several prioritise the motor car over public transport. But many of the projects will deliver much better public transport options in the future. On a national accounts level, these projects have helped GDP growth continue as household consumption has moderated and private investment has been consistently weak to negative. But, and this is the point, there have been sporadic reports recounting how Australia is running out of cement, hard rock and concrete and other building materials, which is pushing up costs. This is the real resource constraint that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) emphasises as the limits to government spending, rather than any concocted financial constraints. If there are indeed shortages of real resources that are essential to infrastructure development then that places a limit on how fast governments can build these public goods. The other point is that as these shortages are emerging, there is still over 15 per cent of our available labour resources that are being unused in one way or another – 714,600 are unemployed, 1,123.9 thousand are underemployed, and participation rates are down so hidden unemployment has risen. So that indicates there is a need for higher deficits while the infrastructure bottlenecks suggest spending constraints are emerging. That is the challenge. Come in policies like the Job Guarantee.

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The ‘truth sandwich’ and the impacts of neoliberalism

On June 15, 2018, the OECD released their report – A Broken Social Elevator? How to Promote Social Mobility – which provided “new evidence on social mobility in the context of increased inequalities of income and opportunities in OECD and selected emerging economies”. If you are still wondering why the mainstream progressive political parties have lost ground in recent years, or why the Italian political landscape has shifted from a struggle between ‘progressive’ and conservative to one between anti-establishment and establishment (the latter including both the traditional progressive and conservative forces which are now virtually indistinguishable) then this evidence will help. It shows categorically that neoliberalism has failed to deliver prosperity for all. While the full employment era unambiguously created a dynamic environment where upward social mobility and declining inequalities in income, wealth, opportunity were the norm, the more recent neoliberal era has deliberately stifled those processes. It is no longer true that ‘all boats rise on a high tide’. The point is that this is a situation that our governments have allowed to arise and which they can alter if they so choose. We should be forcing them to restore the processes that deliver upward mobility. And that is where the “truth sandwich” comes in. Progressive politicians that bang on about ‘taxing the rich to deliver services to the poor’ or who ask ‘where is the money going to come from’ or who claim the ‘bond markets will rebel’ and all the rest of the neoliberal lying drivel should familiarise themselves with the way the sandwich works. It is a very tasty treat if you assemble it properly.

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Australian labour market – weaker in May with tepid employment growth

The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Labour Force, Australia, May 2018 – today which showed that the Australian labour market weakened further over the last month. Overall employment growth was tepid and was marked by a significant decline in full-time employment and a sharp fall in monthly hours worked. In addition, the participation rate fell by 0.2 points (rounded), which is the only reason total unemployment and the unemployment rate declined. Had the participation rate not declined, then the weak employment growth would have caused a rise in overall unemployment. The teenage labour market was the only bright spot. Further, underemployment rose by 19.2 thousand in the three months to May 2018 and the broad labour underutilisation rate remains high at 13.9 per cent. Overall, my assessment is that the Australian labour market remains stuck in a weak state and is still a considerable distance from full employment. There is a lot of slack remaining and defies the foolish calls in recent months from those demanding reductions in the fiscal deficit.

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Australian labour market remains stuck in a weak state

The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Labour Force, Australia, April 2018 – today which showed that the Australian labour market remains in a weak state even though full-time employment grew. Over the first four months of 2018, the labour market is decidedly weaker when compared to 2017. With relatively modest employment growth and rising participation, unemployment increased by 10,600 and the unemployment rate edged up to 5.6 per cent. The teenage labour market was the only bright spot although most of the employment gains were in part-time jobs. Further, underemployment fell marginally as did the broad labour underutilisation rate as a result of the bias towards full time work (also reflected in the monthly hours gain). Overall, my assessment is that the Australian labour market remains stuck in a weak state and is still a considerable distance from full employment. There is a lot of slack remaining and defies the foolish calls in recent months from those demanding reductions in the fiscal deficit.

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