The economics of WorkChoices

I doubt if many economists now think WorkChoices is all they had in mind when they dreamt of labour market reform. It certainly can’t be thought of as deregulation. It’s hugely prescriptive about what unionised workers may and, more particularly, may not do. I’ve written that only the employers have been deregulated, but even that may be too generous. Employers will find the new system more complex and legalistic. The new Act is more voluminous and prescriptive, there’ll be more work for lawyers, no tribunals have been abolished but additional ones created, and the minister is given greatly increased discretion to intervene in bargaining.

Rather than reduce regulation of the labour market, WorkChoices simply biases it in favour of employers by doing all it can discourage collective bargaining and shoving the old system of awards and arbitration into the background. Because economists’ neoclassical model abstracts from the question of relative bargaining power, WorkChoices assumes (possibly correctly) that economists won’t notice what’s amiss. Likewise, it picks up the economists’ point that restrictions on the ability to fire end up being restrictions on the willingness to hire, while ignoring the more subtle point that workers (including even economists) derive much utility from perceiving that their job is secure.

If you draw a distinction between trying to swing one to employers and trying to improve labour market outcomes, it’s hard to see how WorkChoices will do much for the economy. In the OECD’s rating of different countries’ employment protection, it gave our unfair dismissal regime quite a good (ie low) score, and when you remember that getting rid of the unfair dismissal provisions encourages firing as well as hiring, you wouldn’t expect much net increase in employment.

Most economists’ main hope of employment growth would come from lowering the minimum wage, but as Mark Wooden of the Melbourne Institute has pointed out, the Fair Pay Commission’s freedom to lower the minimum wage in real terms will be greatly constrained by the indexation of unemployment benefits. The most the commission’s likely to be able to do is slowly lower the minimum relative to the faster-growing median wage. And, as Saul Eslake of ANZ has reminded us, this was already happening under the much-reviled Industrial Relations Commission. Over the eight years to 2004, the federal minimum wage fell as proportion of median earnings from 60.6 per cent to 58.4 per cent. Without the ability to change tax and transfer policies, there won’t be a lot Ian Harper can do.

You might hope that less protection of penalty rates would permit greater flexibility in the deployment of labour, but make sure you get your analysis right. One little acknowledged point is that, while the penalty payments specified in awards may be arbitrary, it’s perfectly legitimate for workers to set a higher reservation price for work at unsociable hours. And when the cost of labour falls simply because of unequal bargaining power, what results is a transfer of income from workers to employers without any net gain to the economy.

The politics of WorkChoices

But let’s turn to the political implications of WorkChoices. Reading my various columns on the subject, one of the young chaps at work concluded that I’d changed my mind about it. No, I said, it’s just that my views are complicated. I regard WorkChoices as bad in principle, but not likely to be terribly bad in practice. It’s clear the public is most disapproving of the changes, and this accounts for John Howard’s quite serious slump in the polls.

But let me make this fearless prediction: the changes won’t stay a hot topic now they’re through parliament and I’ll be surprised if they’re a significant issue at the election in (presumably) October 2007. There are five reasons for thinking this. First, the changes won’t be as bad as some have painted them. When bush lawyers pore over new legislation, they have a tendency to see worst-case scenarios and imagine they’ll be the new norm. They forget that acts are always conferring rights that are rarely exercised because they’re considered impractical or impolitic. Second, it can take quite a while for people to change their behaviour in response to changed legislative opportunity. Much of the fear of WorkChoices rests on the spread of Australian Workplace Agreements, but these have been available since 1997 and so far have spread to less than 2.5 per cent of the workforce.

Third, the changes are designed to be slow release, with some taking a year, three years or even five years to take effect. Fourth, and this is a point for economists to note, the very nature of decentralised wage fixing means it’s hard for observers to know what’s going on. Whereas all decisions by the IRC were made public, and the terms of all collective agreements are on record, the Act goes to much effort to ensure the terms of AWAs are kept secret. So, in the event of AWAs becoming much more significant in the wage-fixing process than they are today, it will be hard for the public to know if a lot of employers are driving hard bargains, it will hard for the firms and workers in an industry to know what the going wage is (meaning there’s likely to be a fair bit of variation), and it will be hard for the Statistician and economists to know what’s happening to wage growth.

But my fifth reason for distinguishing between principle and practice is, to me, the killer: it won’t be long before the Government’s efforts to shift bargaining power in favour of employers are overtaken by the marked shift in the balance of supply and demand for labour brought about by population ageing and the retirement of the baby boomers. Many people can’t conceive of a time when even the unskilled are in short supply, but everyone over 50 lived through such a time. People say a recession would speed up employers’ exploitation of WorkChoices. That’s true, but it would be wrong to assume the next recession, when it comes, will be as severe as those of the early 1980s and 90s. I think we could be returning to the pre-1974 period where recessions were much milder because, in an era when shortage of labour was the norm, there was a lot more labour hoarding. We’ll soon be entering a period where workers have the upper hand. It may prove that the one great virtue of WorkChoices was to remove any institutional addition to workers’ bargaining power, thus limiting the extent to which the economy is dogged by perpetual worries about excessive wage settlements. This will, to an extent, offset the ill-effects of the Howard Government’s chronic underinvestment in education, training and skill-formation, which will be coming home to roost.

Extracts from Ross Gittins’ address to the Australian Business Economists’ Annual Forecasting Conference, Sydney, December 13, 2005.

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