No jobs and no workers? Strange contradictions of capital accumulation in Australia

An attempt to grasp what recent reports of both rising unemployment and a skills shortage means tells us about capital accumulation in Australia – Published on libcom.org, Feb 1, 2013.

The core hypothesis that I have proposed, and seek to test, is that Australia is in a condition of ‘precarious prosperity’: that the solid level of economic growth driven by the mining boom faces increasingly unsure conditions due the various impacts of the continuing global crisis of capitalism. In this situation two national barriers to capital accumulation have become especially important: the shortage of labour-power and the difficulties the state faces in funding social reproduction.  

(This must be grasped within an understanding of both the ecological crisis we inhabit and the possibility of a radically different and better society that arises from the everyday struggles of everyday people.) I have argued that much of the action of the state in recent years has been attempts to address these conditions, and that the ‘front-lines’ of struggle match these ‘fault-lines’ of capital accumulation. In short the response of capital to these barriers is to intensify work – paid and unpaid.

This hypothesis has a temporal dimension: the future of the boom, and thus the dynamics of capital accumulation in Australia, is uncertain, and due to the speed capital moves at it could change any time – and thus we would have to rethink our condition.  Perhaps I fall in the trap of making predictions. I am about trying to grasp the ‘tendency’ of the unfolding logics of capital(Negri, 1991). These predictions, like all predictions, are probably wrong. But they are also necessary attempts to map, think and strategize. They need to be constantly revised.

It is with that in mind, that I want to think through two seemingly contradictory pieces of information which have appeared in the popular presses about capital accumulation in Australia: that there has been a rise in unemployment and that there is a skills shortage. The first refers to how different capitalist firms are structuring their businesses to navigate the current economic conditions, the second to the problems on the level of society in ensuring the reproduction of labour-power with the competencies and willingness capital desires (which can then also be understood as the product of a diffuse resistance by workers to be reduced to nothing but labour-power for capital.)

As argued in the 2011-12 Federal Budget the mining boom was causing worries about a labour shortage –leading to major state initiatives to find more labour-power in the various pockets of the population. ‘Labour market constraints are likely to increase as the mining boom ramps up, with businesses not linked to the boom likely to find it relatively more difficult to attract and retain workers’ (2011, 6).  As I have argued here and here the welfare changes of the last few years have been attempts to push those sections of the population on the edges of the labour market into it. Already there is evidence that the changes to single parent payment have had this effect(2013d).

However on the Tuesday 15th January 2013 the Australian Financial Review noted that unemployment was rising and  job advertisements have fallen for  ‘ a 10th straight month in December’(Greber, 2013, 1).  The most recent ABS statics show unemployment to have risen from a revised count of 5.3% in November to 5.4% in December(Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013).  Though to be fair this rise follows a fall in unemployment from October to November from 5.4 to 5.2% (this is the figure that has been revised up) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012a).  The latest figures also detail the following:

Employment decreased 5,500 (0.0%) to 11,538,900. Full-time employment decreased 13,800 to 8,112,500 and part-time employment increased 8,300 to 3,426,400.
Unemployment increased 16,600 (2.6%) to 656,400. The number of persons looking for full-time work increased 12,600 to 476,500 and the number of persons looking for part-time work increased 4,000 to 179,900.
The unemployment rate increased 0.1 pts to 5.4%.
The participation rate remained steady at 65.1%.
Aggregate monthly hours worked decreased 1.1 million hours to 1,623.5 million hours.(Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013)

So there has been a slight drop in jobs (with a growth in part-time employment) but the rise in unemployment  in the ABS figures can also to be attributed to more people looking for work  and finding less opportunities( perhaps at the end of the school year?) rather than companies laying off people . The problem seems to be a lack of jobs growth rather than substantial job loses – 2012 has the lowest level of jobs growth in 15 years (McMahon, 2013). The argument being made in the AFR is that even if commodity prices rise– as the drop in the price of iron ore is often cited as the key indicator of declining Australian economic conditions -  the current ‘focus on cost reduction’ won’t equal jobs(Greber, 2013).

Since these figures were released there has been a rise in reportage on job loses – though these would be loses that wouldn’t be figured into the ABS stats.  The Sydney Morning Herald reported that in total in early January 1200 jobs have been lost(Hutchens, 2013). These include losses due to the Vodafone closing down their phone chain Crazy Johns.  Bluescope Steel has announced cuts to 170 jobs from the Western Point plant in Melbourne (Greber, 2013, 1). Boral has announced that it plans to reduce 700 staff  (Robins, 2013). A great deal has been has been made of these last two but these are planned redundancies that are yet to come. They do seem to be examples of the problems of manufacturing in Australia for the Australian market.   Generally speaking I think we can safely assume that this slight, but noticeable, rise in unemployment is due to a restructuring in the mining industry, the impact of the high Australian dollar on non-resource based exports, large scale job cuts in the public service and community organisations (especially under the Coalition/LNP governments down the east coast) and weak levels of domestic demand for retail and housing despite low interest rates … //

… (full long text, references and comments).

Links:

Civil Service Rank & File Network conference – a report
, Saturday 2 February, the Civil Service Rank & File CSRF Network held its inaugural national conference in Coventry. This is a brief report of the event and analysis of where the group is and should be heading, on libcom.org, by Phil, Feb 3, 2013;

Civil Service Rank & File Network on Google News-search.

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