Housing and the Precariat in Australia

Housing and the Precariat in Australia

precariat explained

In Australia the Federal Government insists on privileging the interests of a few over the needs of the many.  As a result, homelessness and is on the rise, while the number of vacant homes owned by investors continues to grow.  Most disturbing of all is that these realities seem to be accepted as a fixed feature of our socio-economic order.

It might seem that there’s not much new to say about economic inequality; that we need to keep talking and working for change, but we already have all the critical information.

Guy Standing, an economist and professor at the University of London, has worked extensively on economic inequality and how to fix it. He has also drawn attention to the growing numbers of precariously employed workers, what he calls the “precariat.”

Precarious work has been a growing segment of the labour force since globalization commenced in around the 1980s; however, Standing says it really took off after 2008.  With the dramatic increase in people who may be able to make ends meet today but have no long-term security, he said “we’ve seen a breakdown in the 20th-century income-distribution system, where profits and rental income are going to the plutocracy and elite. At the top, we’ve got a top one percent, who the Occupy movement portrayed. It’s [actually] much smaller than that. But below them, you’ve got a salariat, people who’ve got long-term employment security…. But that group is shrinking. And the precariat, that’s growing instead of the old working class, consists of people who are being told they must put up with unstable, flexible labour.”

The precariat are different to the blue-collar workers of previous generations who tended to have job security. Today’s precariat usually doesn’t job security, and spans income and education levels, from sub-minimum-wage illegal migrant work and low-wage retail or service work to highly educated but contract- and freelance-dependent industries.

“Because they’re shifting in and out of short-term positions,” Standing said, “they have to apply [for jobs], they have to keep up their CV, they have to send around their CV, they have to apply and apply again, and when they do apply for jobs they’re often put through hoops of going through, you know, 15 procedures, like filling in aptitude tests, and going for interviews, and then going for more interviews.”

The precariat is a huge and still growing phenomena that spans the globe. According to Standing, the precariat sits at around 40 to 45 percent of the labour force in many countries, although in some countries it’s much higher.

Mainstream political parties worldwide have failed to address these issues in any meaningful way. “They’re still opting to try to appeal to the concept of the middle class and are failing to understand the precariat,” Standing said.  There is still no serious discussion among the major parties in Australia of issues pertaining to the millions of part-time and “flexible” workers, and certainly no recognition that those workers form a distinct social class with distinct needs.

For Australia’s ‘precariat’, life is a daily struggle. They live in insecure housing and are in constant fear of losing their income.  The precariat are people who often rotate between benefits and paid employment and at times juggle multiple jobs, so-called flexible jobs, they rely on welfare to fill in the gaps.  They’re often accused of being at fault for the conditions in which they stand.  Once you’re in the precariat class, you’re likely to stay there.  Their life opportunities are steadily eroded.  Getting a job is seldom the way out of this situation either; as many are actually working.  The idea that work is a solution to poverty is too simplistic, as, work today is not necessarily a solution to poverty.

We’re getting schism between people in the precariat who don’t have money to invest so can’t get those passive returns, and those who do are getting a larger and larger share of the economy.

A range of measures are needed to redress this increasing inequality.

The gap between the minimum wage and a living wage, basic incomes to bring some stability and security, poverty is a relational issue, it’s not just about the poor.

One thing that is common to all people in this situation throughout the world is stress.  People are losing control of their time, if you’re juggling multiple jobs there’s a lot of unpaid labour goes into getting ready for those jobs.  The problems are also multi-generational, and impact heavily on seniors.  If precariats make it to retirement at all, they don’t have assets or super and so struggle to just make ends meet.

Meanwhile, investor homes sit empty with unregulated real estate speculation making housing unaffordable even for what was once called the middle class.

Strategies must transform how governments, at all levels, interact with those who are homeless and inadequately housed. Instead of viewing them as needy beneficiaries, objects of charity, or, worse, as criminals, they must instead recognise that people who are homeless are active citizens who should be involved in decisions affecting their lives.

This does not bode well for the future of the right to housing or that of the people living in conditions that challenge human dignity and life itself.

It’s not news to anyone that the economy is not working for many people. Since the financial crisis of 2008, discussions about the 99 percent, wealth inequality, housing affordability, homelessness and the many related economic and social issues have been prominent. Those discussions, and the widespread dissatisfaction with the neoliberal status quo underpinning them, have even spread into the institutional political arena.

Stephen Hall
Stephen Hall
Lives in Perth, Western Australia.

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