So says Crikey’s Bernard Keane without realising he is doing so:
As Victoria is discovering, and the rest of us may yet discover, COVID-19 is perfectly habituated to a 21st century economy centred around services delivered by outsourced, precarious workforces.
Daniel Andrews, whatever his faults, at least recognises the role of insecure work in driving people to continue going to work even if they’re feeling ill, enabling the transmission of the virus. And many of those jobs are in service industries, which exposes more people to potential infection.
The acceleration in infection is thus a US-style outcome to a US-style feature of our economy — that despite Medicare, and a better industrial relations system, workers are still faced with an invidious choice of working while ill or losing income.
The current $1500 payment for casual workers if they become infected is little help for people deciding to lose a few days’ shifts for the good of the community.
It’s not a choice many people on higher incomes face. And the government is giving federal politicians time off work rather than requiring them to attend parliament, without any loss of income. High-profile journalists, enjoying incomes multiples of those of people in insecure work, scold lower-income people for their irresponsibility.
But many are doing exactly what our economy requires them to do. Australia was once the land — so we told ourselves — of worker self-indulgence, a national that honoured the great tradition of chucking a sickie, of putting the feet up rather than doing the hard yakka (funnily enough, that was also when our labour productivity was significantly higher than now, but anyway).
Since the 1990s — when the level of casualisation in the workforce dramatically increased, though it has stayed relatively level since then — that’s changed fundamentally.The rapidly expanding personal service economy enabled by the internet has accelerated that in recent years, creating terms like “gig economy” and “side hustle” to describe what has replaced full-time, secure work. And the war in penalty rates conducted by business and the Coalition has only increased pressure on the incomes of people in casual work.
And these are jobs that the worried well of the middle class — including well-paid journalists — expect as part of the modern economy. The barista to make a coffee whenever you want; the driver to deliver your food and transport you across town at your command; the petsitter to look after your animals; the cleaner you need at home because you and your partner are too busy. All jobs where if you miss a shift, you don’t get paid.
That’s a related but quite separate matter to the growth of labour hire and outsourcing, by both governments and the private sector, of what used to be specialist roles but now appears to be pretty much anything, including security guards.
Labour hire, a sector rife with exploitation and wage theft, offers not merely a lower-cost form of labour than bothering to employ someone, but it also outsources responsibility for any problems.
Workers not paid enough? It’s the fault of the labour hire firm. Workers not qualified, untrained or inexperienced? It’s the fault of the labour hire firm. Firms that, conveniently, tend to disappear as rapidly as they appear when subjected to scrutiny — as the “judicial” inquiry into the quarantine debacle in Victoria will likely find.
Labour hire is popular not merely because it saves money, but it enables firms, and governments, to shift blame and avoid the legal and reputational repercussions that flow from stuff-ups.
“Not our fault,” the minister/executive can say; concerned, of course, but not accountable. “You’ll have to raise that issue with the company responsible.”
That many workers operating in outsourced or insecure jobs go home to poor quality, overcrowded public housing, of course, simply redoubles the opportunity for infection.
And there you have it. What MB calls the anus economy, perfectly adapted for COVID-19 to thrive, with immigration bringing it in en masse. Is it any wonder that the virus took hold first in Malignant Melbourne:
It struck me as I sat there that it was wonderfully convenient to have a Thai massage joint just around the corner, especially given my local shops are not very large. I briefly surveyed the other shops and realised swiftly that what I was looking at was the lion’s share of the Australian services economy supply chain. Nearly all of it was directed not at the production of anything, nor the supply of anything, nor the inputs to some factory, but at servicing my person. Specifically, it was mostly targeted at various components of my body. There was an inordinately expensive organic grocer for my stomach. A retro barber for my head. A manicurist for my nails. A tatooist for my ink. A specialist wine purveyor for my tongue. A gift store for my birthday. A shop front personal trainer for my flab. An Asian tailor and presser for my clothes. Any number of cafes of course. And a real estate agent on every corner.
I realised that it was I that was the factory. My body, or more to the point, my mind, my intellectual property, was being supported my an extensive supply chain of services that plumped, fattened, thinned, preened, pressed, fluffed, trimmed and massaged me into the ongoing production of ideas.
There was one thing more that was obvious. These various services were not just the slapdash Aussies of yesteryear. There were no lackadaisical loafers working for the man and hanging for a smoko. Each of the services on display was a finely crafted specialist, an artisan in his and her craft, immensely serious with extraordinary attention to detail. The massage offered a limitless array of options right down to your chosen incense and its specific impact upon your chakras. The barber wore a perfect replica suit from the 1920s and sported enormous mustaches to match. The personal trainer rippled in the window. The grocer glowed with ruddy peasant health and one could almost smell the fresh loam on her fingers. The cafe’s were a rival for Tate Modern in their timberwork and ceramics, and one could literally choose a vintage decolletage in which to hang as if riding in a time machine.
The amount of effort and innovation going into finding a competitive edge for the privilege of servicing my sagging flesh was spectacular.
And that’s the thing. All of these local shops are a hive entrepreneurial beavering. But all of them are directed inwards in an endlessly dividing paradox of insignificance. None of them is tradable, as services mostly are not, so none has the chance to flower much beyond the local shops, let alone nationally or internationally. That poses a problem for the economy because if all you ever do is service one another in more elaborately infinitesimal detail then there is no actual wealth generation going on. There was no organic capital generation, no capital deepening nor breakthrough’s in efficiency. The capital that drives this machine by definition comes from outside of it in the form of a visitor, a new buyer of a local asset or someone that has borrowed to invest.
I have said it before. Australia was very fortunate to have the chance to kill the virus being situated in a summer island when it broke out. But, when you look a little forward, there is no economy on earth more directly exposed to viral destruction than our debt-soaked, income-deserted, population Ponzi.