March 8th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

ASIA: Taiwan: opposition parties combine for next poll

BOOKS: The Aquariums Of Pyongyang: Ten Years In The North Korean Gulag

BOOKS: Charles Dickens, by Jane Smiley

BOOKS: The Great Escape, by Anton Gill

COVER STORY: Iraq: make haste slowly

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Howard shifts focus to domestic issues

AGRICULTURE: Sugar industry reports: 'social science fiction' - Ted Kolsen

FARM INCOME: Rising dollar exposes parlous state of agriculture

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Middle life crisis / Damaged goods? / The green carnations

DRUGS: Quit Marijuana an effective program in New South Wales

DRUGS - DOCUMENTATION: New cannabis studies confirm danger to users

DRUGS: 'Fifth columnist' Mike Trace resigns UN drug post

Sugar levy (letter)

Financial planning (letter)

COMMENT: Christians and Muslims in Europe: how can they co-exist?

EMPLOYMENT: Casualisation a conjuring trick

ECONOMICS: 'Efficiency' blinds policy makers' judgment

Farmers' water rights at stake

ASIA: Is reunification possible for the two Koreas?

Books promotion page

Casualisation a conjuring trick

by Tim Wallace

News Weekly, March 8, 2003
Mid-way through last year the publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald, Alan Revell, issued a rare memo - rare for the fact it spelt out in so many words the prevailing management view at Fairfax as to how its newspapers should be staffed in order to deliver the highest possible standards of journalism.

"Several staff have asked for more flexible work arrangements so they can pursue other activities while continuing to contribute to the Herald," Revell's memo ran. "These requests have coincided with the paper needing to come up with smarter ways of containing costs while retaining all the paper's strong points.

"These ideas have evolved into an innovative program that aims to keep a close relationship with those staff keen to change their work patterns. It also manages costs in a constructive way at a time where the paper is being asked to tightly manage its budgets."

"Flexible work"

The crux of Revell's "flexible work program" was this: successful applicants would cease to be employees of the company and instead start a "new relationship" as contributors. They would receive a one-off payment to assist with setting up a home office but after that would essentially be on their own. Revell, needless to say, was not flooded with applications.

Most reporters, obviously lacking their publisher's managerial insight, failed to see how being cut adrift from a permanent job provided them with anything other than the flexibility to watch more daytime television and earn less money.

Shedding permanent jobs and the tiresome obligations that go with them is all the rage in business. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the proportion of employed Australians with full-time jobs declined from 79 per cent in 1990 to 74 per cent in 2000, while the proportion with entitlements to either paid sick leave or holidays fell from 81 per cent to 73 per cent. In recent years the trend has accelerated.

Between August 2001 and August 2002, the number of full-time jobs actually fell by 22,900; the number of part-time jobs increased 238,200.

These figures put an entirely different complexion on the official jobless rate, whose marginal decline has been heralded by the federal government as a sign of a national "economic miracle". It is less a miracle than a conjuring trick: a person counts employed if they work more than 15 hours a week, therefore the headline figure are masking an epidemic of underemployment.

Media organisations have not been immune from these trends. At both News Limited and Fairfax, both keen to prove to the market that they have what it takes to keep costs in check, hiring freezes have been in place for something like three years.

Of course, editorial rooms still need a minimum number of people to get the paper out, so the result is a higher proportion of casual staff, particularly on the production side, among subeditors, graphic designers and photographers.

Management prefers casualisation for a variety of reasons. Casuals are often cheaper, since the pay rates are standardised and there are none of the irksome responsibilities that come with a full-time employee, like sick leave and annual leave. There is the removal of the future obligation to provide ongoing employment - something which, by a strange accounting quirk, is regarded by financial analysts as a liability rather than an investment.

There is also an increase in managerial power on the editorial floor, since casuals do not have the security of tenure to challenge their bosses (lest they find themselves off the roster next week) and are also less likely to belong to the union.

There are, of course, meant to be checks on the degree to which newspapers stack their staff with casuals. The enterprise agreement at Fairfax, for example, states that a casual employee who works regular shift patterns for six months is entitled to permanent employment.

But Fairfax management has shirked this by deciding casuals must work exactly the shift pattern for six months; and this never happens, because those charged with organising rosters have been directed change casuals' shift patterns around to ensure they never do. It's a sleight of hand that, needless to say, hasn't been stated in any staff memo.

Management, alas, is cutting off its nose to spite its face. Whatever cost-savings being made are, I suspect, being more than offset by the damage to a culture that allows quality journalism to flourish.

Casual staff, after all, almost invariably have a lesser knowledge than full-timers of subject matter, house style, technological systems and organisational operations.

They also, believe it or not, tend to find themselves less committed to their jobs, since no security, no prospect of promotion or pay rises, and the knowledge you are a second-class corporate citizen tends to sap your motivation.

If managements want casual, that's what they get.

I know because I've been one.

  • Tim Wallace is a freelance journalist:

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