Indignados

May 212014
 

StudentsFeeling useless is something I know a fair bit about. Being a philosophy major, you could say I’m an expert in uselessness. But these times are tough. In the immortal words of Kent Brockman, “Joblessness is no longer just for philosophy majors – useful people are starting to feel the pinch.” I’m going to ignore the absurdity in that sentence, but it’s really apt for now. The last week has been particularly hard on my students, following #budget2014. No doubt they feel personally insulted, aggrieved and bewildered, and as if society is rejecting them as a whole.

My students almost represent the entirety of the demographic that is under assault by our current politics: Under 30s, science students, Indigenous, mature age and single parents. But my students are fantastic people. If they weren’t, they’d be studying economics (apart from those who follow Steve Keen and the like); human resources (who have no other skill apart from liking feeling superior than everyone else); Accounting (but my students have a personality); Finance and commerce (parasites and sociopaths), or any other number of occupations that seem entitled to dictate what people do and how their value to society is measured.

All gross stereotypes aside, it is important for my students to know that they have valuable skills. These valuable skills are distinguished from those listed above. And just because the occupations ahead might tell them they have no worth to society – for employment or whatever, that they actually do have options about where to head in their future – that they are generating valuable knowledge and extremely worthwhile skills for society.

This semester, I’ve been teaching Oceanography, generally, to a group of Environmental Science students. Teaching at a small regional campus allows me to have my lectures and tutorials in a completely different format to what otherwise would be the case. And this session last Friday, I decided to do something different – aside from teaching them that a shelf is not just something that influences currents, but is also a quiet elf.

Other lecturers such as Lee Skallerup talk about the importance of caring for their students. I’ve written previously about the problems facing us as graduates after university. For mine, they are almost one and the same. I can’t care for my students without looking out for their futures, and what they require. But that doesn’t happen without knowing the drives behind my students, and my students being aware of them. This shaped my latest lecture and tute.

I was sure my students were sick of hearing that their lecturers and whatnot are negative about the budget and the government etc. So before we got started, I asked my students to get into groups of three, and discuss what brought them here – to this unit, to this course, and what about them fundamentally has led them to be doing what they are doing (none of this, it’s a mandatory unit and so on…).

I also asked them to discuss a skill that they have brought, that they can develop at university, which they can use once they leave university.

It was an interesting process. My students are really passionate about what they want, and about why they are doing what they are doing. I have students that want to change what they have done all their working lives, those that wont to make a better world for their kids. Those that want to teach science and environmental issues to students, those that love being outdoors.

What I did not expect was the blank that occurred when I asked the students how they could use their passions into the workforce. I suspect it’s the reverse in the case of the students I’ve lambasted above (no passions but an idea of how to use their skills in employment).

But the fact is, my students do have incredibly valuable skills and knowledge. Many are great with numbers. We need more mathematically inclined people in the workplace. And it really doesn’t matter how you get there. A really good friend of mine and a personal mentor as got into health research through developing skills in ecological statistics.

There are a lot of visual learners in my class. But being science students, I suspect they’re also data interested. I suggested that if this was so, to tailor their studies to GIS and the spatial sciences. You might not be working in an environmental field, but you will likely be working outdoors, with data and in a visual way.

Most of my students are people people. I suggested maybe that they consider teaching. If they’re outdoorsy types, consider youth work or support services. There are ways to use your passions like surfing to do something that is going to utilise your passions, as well as your knowledge and skills that you’ve acquired.

Just because you are doing a science, where people think you are useless, doesn’t mean you are.

We have a problem with valuing intellect and knowledge in Australia. I implored any of my students to look overseas. Go somewhere where you feel wanted, because places overseas do value your skills, your knowledge and your passions. If it wasn’t for personal circumstances, I would be heading overseas to live, myself.

It is important for my students to understand that the small minded society Australia has become, is not a reflection on themselves, or their skills. We shouldn’t be taking societal and employment advice from people who have been given a free tertiary education, only then to be taking a wage directly from the taxpayer. That’s cretinous.

We also shouldn’t be taking employment and education advice from people who measure their worth to society by the amount of tax that they pay/ or don’t pay. Because if we did, there would be no beans for the bean counters to count, no money for financiers to be parasitic of, no ideas for the idea quashers to quash, and no occupations where HR types would be able to feel more secure than.

May 122014
 

 

PrecariatRecently I wrote about my experience in the Precariat, and it seemed to generate a lot of interest and some discussion away from the blog. It appears to speak to a narrative which is quite hard to navigate, and is fraught with racist and xenophobic undertones which threaten to hide legitimate issues requiring discussion. It just so happens that after expressing my opinion of the 457 Visa system as being a rort, and scammed by many employers, that in the last week or so, an alleged organised crime racket has been exposed for allegedly abusing 457 workers. This unfortunately for the 457 workers involved, puts them in an extremely precarious position – the worst kind of Precariat situation imaginable.

 

As I have discovered recently through some twitter debates, the issue gets quite heated, and responses to insecure work in Australia can quickly degenerate and appeal to racist elements in the community. One such representation of this is recent union advertising, pointing out that 457 workers “took our jobs” and that these jobs belong to “us”. Despite the fact that unions do help uncover 457 visa abuses, and help 457 obtain better working conditions and entitlements, this is an unwelcome response to an issue that is tricky enough to navigate as it is.

 

Language such as “us” and “them” when talking about foreign workers, immigrants and so on is inherently xenophobic. Australia has a pretty horrible history with such language and policy responses, going back to mining days in the early goldfields, Asian immigration in the north of Australia and the response with the White Australia Policy.

 

What is missing, and what was pointed out by others in the debate, is worker solidarity. In a globalised world, insecure employment is an issue impacting upon young workers almost everywhere in the developed and undeveloped world. And the response must be global. The issues facing young workers in Australia are undoubtedly faced by the workers coming to Australia on 457 visas in their own economies. But it makes no sense to create more problems in other countries – the movement of skilled labour internationally is a huge false economy and a massive cost faced by the host social systems and structures, not borne by the corporations that create them.

 

Those who were a part of the conversation that lead to this post were quite right in arguing that the correct response should be to improve the working conditions, pay rates and improved employment across the board in the host countries.

 

It is the lack of accountability on companies and businesses which leads to inappropriate employment practices and the lack of up-skilling of workers in developed countries, right around the world.

 

It is precisely because companies do not have to provide adequate pay, conditions and training that enable 457 Visa rorts. If companies were only allowed to work 457 visa holders to 40 hours a week, at the market rate of pay, the incentive to employ, train and invest in local workers is increased. In my opinion, it is only because of these factors that make 457 workers attractive to employers. For every worker on a 457, there is probably another half a full time job that they are doing, that could be done by someone else. This is not an acceptable situation. We do not have full employment and we have an alarming increase in our youth unemployment. These problems could be addressed with increased training and investment by companies.

 

The other issue is the abuse of the sponsorship and visa provisions. Unions, and I think everyone should argue that is employed on an ongoing basis should be given something akin to permanent residency. The fact that the employer holds the employees citizenship rights, is a naturally abusive power imbalance. The power imbalance is what undoubtedly leads to worker abuse and the sort of practice I explained in the previous post. I don’t think 457 workers would be prepared to lie in legal documents if they knew they could go elsewhere. As it is, employers can force 457 workers to sign documents wrongfully showing their working hours. An unwillingness to sign such a document, or to work illegal, exploitative and abusive hours is likely to see a dismissal and deportation.

 

By ensuring that all workers have appropriate rights to stay in Australia means that employers will have to ensure that they are well looked after and remunerated. I’m sure many companies who struggle to attract and retain Australian workers face their shortages because they are such poor places to work. If their 457 workforce were to be able to leave, it would ensure that their employment practices are appropriate – otherwise their shortages would continue. The 457 process hides failings within the employment practice that are unwilling to be addressed by the companies. Ironic, given the reasons many companies give to hiring foreign workers – laziness, incompetence, lack of skills etc of Australian workers.

 

Thanks to an earlier discussion, there is a way forward on this issue that can positively impact change that is not xenophobic or racist. Tactics employed by the unions in this area are counterproductive and as so often with the union movement, tarnish the good things that unions do. The focus should move to improving conditions for all workers, changing the working residency status for workers and improving employment and up skilling practices. Not only would this be better for 457 workers, but also increase the chances of Australians attaining work, and a more skilful, harmonious and loyal workforce.

Apr 162014
 

PrecariatA few weeks ago whilst driving down to Yallingup for a field trip with my Oceanography students, I was amazed by and at the same time greatly irritated by Radio National’s Life Matter Program ‘What Did You Do With Your Degree’. Being a member of the Precariat, it repeated many of the rubbish, meaningless and glib phrases that I’ve heard all of my life about education.

It latched onto the now common debate about whether university degrees are still worth doing. And the answer from those working for Universities was a resounding, “yes”. The problem of graduates finding it hard to gain employment is still all someone else’s problem. It was an extraordinarily self serving debate and got me more than a little riled up.

Following your passions, your interests etc is still the mantra of university marketers. Well, passions don’t pay your bills. And unless you have wealthy parents, your passions aren’t going to save you from poverty if you’re overqualified with useless skills and an education that makes you overqualified for everything you try to apply for.

The debate conveniently ignored many of the factors that impact upon recent graduates and those of my generation. Or the hosts blithely glided over them and put them in the same basket as the “casualisation” of entry level jobs.

I am without a doubt a card carrying member of our generation known as the Precariat. Since graduating in 2009, I’ve had one interview. Since completing my Master of Science last year, I’ve had none.

I exist on using personal contacts (none of which have been developed from study) and casual insecure contracts. Although I have a good work history, I probably live in borderline poverty from time to time, and without family I would already be homeless.

But recently (and it took me a long time to realise this), is that of course we are producing too many university graduates. That much is obvious, despite the answers given by the panellists. But this is a function of a society that is task focussed, vocationally focussed and exceptionally removed from a world of self critique and self examination, cohesion and social betterment.

The real discussion, which wasn’t overtly set out was why we might want to have a society where we have a lot of graduates that are performing valuable roles in society. And this is the argument that needs to be made and needs to be carried if employers are actually going to take on more local graduates.

There is an implicit message sent with Australia’s policy settings regarding graduates, immigrants and skilled workers. In my field, I have to compete with workers on 457 visas, who have already been trained elsewhere, and are cherry picked by companies who don’t want to have to invest the minimum investment required to skill me in what I need to do. Despite the fact that I have valuable skills and knowledge that I deliberately targeted because of what I thought would be desired (if you want to hire me, get in touch by the way).

It’s also the case that 457 workers are working illegal hours, and then signing legal documents to say that they aren’t working those illegal hours – knowing full well if they don’t do those hours or sign the documents, their 457 sponsorship will be jeopardised. It is really another example of a disadvantage that local workers are facing.

I have friends who have graduated in Nursing; a skill in high demand, as we are frequently told. But they have not been able to secure any ongoing employment apart from casual, agency type work. Yet, we are still employing nurses on 457 visas. It does not make any sense. Unless there is an implied assumption that our own graduates are not up to standard.

The real issue is what we do with so many graduates facing insecure or few job prospects, whilst competing with policy that is actively working against them.

But it is not just policy that is working against graduates and members of the Precariat. HR departments and HR workers have become notorious and synonymous with misunderstanding the skills that graduates have. They are themselves a parody of what employment and education in Australia has become.

However, this is not exclusively the fault of those in the HR industry. Given that many companies are completely outsourcing their recruitment functions, HR consultants are constrained by the types of employees they are willing to recommend for positions. Gone are the days where employers would understand the translatable nature of the skills that people have in different positions. Instead, many skills are frowned upon.

I myself have had this happen with one HR consultant. After looking at my resume, he informed me that he didn’t have any work going in the education field. Well, if you’re in HR and think that I’m in education because I work for a university and not in education because I have specific skills and knowledge related to particular fields of expertise, then it is a problem.

Or an argument I had with one who concluded that academics and those in Higher Ed were completely unaccountable for the public funding they received. I had to remind her that she did not have to gain ethics approval to do her job, nor have to acquit her funding on the basis of performance or outcomes. Nor was a failure to understand what constituted accountability by way of production of research and inability to cognise academic production the fault of the academic, but a symptom of the problem of HR types and their interaction with the Higher Ed sector.

And don’t get me started on HR in Higher Ed! Often the most obstructive and counterproductive people in Universities to research production and outcomes within the University!

But it is a problem partly of the making of Universities and the higher education sector as well. Those working in HR are “skilled”, rather than “educated” and really probably don’t have enough grounding in alternative fields to understand what particular potential workers can bring to a workplace. It’s all well and good to say that architects and arts graduates can work in banks advising on different scenarios (as the radio programme did), but if you have a HR department that doesn’t understand different attributes, then it is a pointless discussion.

I could go on for hours and hours about my frustrations with employment following graduation, about the lack of understanding of my generation’s skills; the precariousness of employment that my Dad’s generation simply does not understand. I guess the important thing to take out of this is that the problem is known. What we need to do is actually talk about the problem that exists. It isn’t going to be helped by increasing student enrolments, which is what one of the pushes is on for. Nor do we need 457 visa workers in a lot of the areas we have them. Employers and those in the HR have to be more aware of the skills that are actually out there – and be prepared to train people up. Unlike previous generations it is not something that is being provided for my Precariat generation.

Feb 272014
 
Los/ Las Parados/as in Malaga
Los/ Las Parados/as in Malaga*

 I’ve been to Spain twice and absolutely loved it. I have found the crisis in Spain to be horrible, but absolutely fascinating. The political graffiti is amazing and the level of discontent and level of unemployment in Spain is something completely foreign to my generation. I wrote about it after travelling most of the country in 2011. But I have not had a place to publish it until now.


On the other side of the world, a unique situation is unfolding – being played out, unravelling – all behind the veil of another culture, another language. It is not apparent to our Australian eyes through the presentation of the media outlets of choice. The magnitude and the scale is not even entirely apparent to those most affected – the Spanish citizenry. One of Europe’s largest economies is in serious trouble, yet serious trouble in a different form to what we are presented with. Away from the glib, catch-all phrases we are occasionally given, more troubling issues are afoot that have semblance to underlying issues within the Australia economy, and society in general. It is almost a parallel universe that Australia has narrowly avoided, which Australia has the ability to avoid into the future. “La Crisis” (as it is known in Spain) is ongoing; whereas for Australia, it has passed. But it could have been so much different.

When you visit Spain, you encounter a country that is European, yet vastly different – proudly different. It is almost scornful of its position within European society, fighting to be a recluse from outsiders and perceived threats to the Spanish way of life. This has a long tradition in Spain, which it is fighting to overcome. Franco took Spain into a hermit’s lodging and it has been trying to come down the mountain ever since; except that outsiders love Spain: its culture, its food, its sights and its landscape give visitors a smorgasbord of options for reasons to go there and to come back. Spain has failed to make the most of these links beyond the superficial, thereby paying a horrible price that will certainly hinder any recovery.

The failings in regards to the lack of forged links are fundamentally responsible for the problems the Spanish economy and society now find themselves in. The reclusiveness and lack of inquisitiveness into other cultures strikes you as bizarre when you encounter it. Compared to other countries in Europe, their understanding of language (apart from Spanish and the regional language) is poor and there does not seem to be an emphasis on changing this. Other countries in the north of Europe have excellent multi-lingual capacity and, for the most part, their economies have rebounded since the first GFC. Their societies do not remain closed and the adaptability of their role in the context of the European situation is backed by their ability to generate business connections, which are largely due to their education, language skills and the type of global citizenry that creates.

Yet, Spain is a country that is in Europe. Like Australia, it has not recently been towed by tug boat into the region it now finds itself. But the behaviour of both countries, and both cultures, seems particularly alike in that both want to be a part of their region only to enjoy the successes, yet not be fundamentally involved in the drivers of the underlying culture that provide the benefits. How many Australians actively attempt to understand cultures in our greater region? How many Australians know any words of the languages that surround us in our region? What relevance over the long term do we provide to our region? What is the relevance of Australia in our region? Are we just the net cord in a game of tennis, or will we decide as a nation to pick up a racquet? What are we doing strategically to make sure we are relevant in our own region – aside from those strategies which are easiest and convenient?

An example of the plentiful political graffiti

An example of the plentiful political graffiti

One of the most striking examples of what can go wrong when you do not develop answers to these questions is in Andalucía. El Andalus, literally ‘The Paradise’ in Arabic, is one of Spain’s autonomous regions. It is in serious financial and social trouble. With an unemployment rate of 28 percent and a youth unemployment rate well above 50 percent, there is growing discontent and a huge build-up of anger. Protests in each of the large cities are a daily occurrence, and the dislocation of young people from their places of origin is a massive concern. The most educated and most talented young people are moving in large numbers to Madrid, or to Barcelona, or overseas from places such as Malaga that will, in the future, need these brains. As was seen in Perth in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and has been seen in South Australia over a longer period of time, these future leaders of society return in often vastly reduced numbers.

What is left is the parados – quite literally, the do-nothing people – the unemployed without work and without the ability to work.

This failure also stinks. In Seville, a plenitude of horse-drawn carriages moves about the city taking tourists on scenic tours; except that the local authority does not have the money to adequately clean the resulting faecal material up. Nothing says the current crisis in Spain quite like Seville – if you look.  Sure, there might be endless empty apartments and dilapidated construction sites on the Costa del Sol; although Seville does have that as well – on the river front, which you cannot access because of building sites which have long since been abandoned. But Seville faces a crisis, different to how we envisage it. It is a crisis of relevance. It is a crisis of xenophobia, of introverted regionalism and the paralysis that that causes. An annoyance to longer term visitors or migrants to the area is the lack of choices in the food. This city of one million people has only two Japanese restaurants. Sure, it sounds trivial, but it is emblematic of the problem that Andalucía has: A complete inability to explore outside their narrow culture, to embrace outside influences and to shun the rest of the world entirely.  And now, because of ‘la crisis’, outsiders will wield influence and power over the region’s fate, and what was most at risk in the minds of Andalucians – the loss of identity and culture – may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Madrid Protest, Unemployment, Euro, Spain

One of the many large protests in Madrid in 2011

The incredible despair being experienced has given rise to a political movement amongst students, the youth and generally anyone disaffected by the political structure of Spain – the ‘Indignados’ (literally the “unhappy people” or “people with indignation”).  Holding local meetings to take to broader meetings, they hope to form a type of self-government which is a throwback to elements of anarchist Spain in the 1930s. We have come to know these types as the 99%. But the 99% lack the basis for a large groundswell, unlike the Indignados. Unfortunately for them, the same problems that inflicted anarchists in the 1930s are likely to come out in droves this time around as well. Petty squabbling amongst the regions, amongst small areas of the country, is the problem and not the solution. Consensus politics is not an easy task when the starting point is myopic, removing the larger context. This is a slightly different situation to the Catalan independence movement which has its origins in political, economic, social, cultural and linguistic repression from other parts of Spain.

So what can Australia learn from a country that has failed so comprehensively to make the connections with the culture that surrounds it? Put simply, a lot. Australia is already a multicultural country. Despite the framing of the recent white paper (the Asian Century), which puts Australia alongside Asia and not inherently within it, we are a part of Asia and not apart from it. Australia already has many successful business and cultural links with Asia, and so Australia has an advantageous starting point to build from.

So what are the risks to Australia if we turn away from the culture that we are a part of? The greatest risk is that Australia fails to make the cultural connections to establish long and lasting economic links. We should not think for a moment that a one-sector economy will see us on a never-ending path to prosperity. The Spanish property market is a prime example of what can happen when that happens. We must use our resources to leverage greater cultural and economic links with the region we are a part of – and language is the key to doing so. But I don’t see this happening and we are falling into the same trap that the Spanish have, in regards to property speculation and reliance on construction.

The learning of languages is where the problem lies. We have not yet found a way to successfully teach indigenous languages whilst engaging students to learn English. It is reported that when a bilingual Australia was proposed to Kevin Rudd at the 2020 summit in 2008, he said: ‘Cost too much money.’ The problems of learning languages and culture in Australia are a mirror of our internal policy and politics, which is then reflected into the region around us. We do not have a way of demonstrating cultural understanding internally to be used as a model to then learn cultures outside of our own.

The solution is in the hands of our leaders, both politically and institutionally. Educators have a role to play in the development of our kids to be citizens of the region, and of the world. Business must demand that politicians ensure that the teaching of culture and Asian languages is continuous in our school system. In the face of political change and policy upheaval with cultural connections, it is up to school leaders to fill the void. It is not simply an education, foreign affairs or economics policy issue, it is one and the same. Our failure to understand it is such, is a blight on our country.

After all, what relevance do we have in the region once the mining boom has finished? Are our next generation going to be parados? Or will they inherit their own paradise?

 

*Thanks to Ester from Villa Alicia Guest House in Malaga for use of this image. If you are in southern Spain, drop by. She was great to talk to about these things, and gave me some wonderful travelling tips. (I haven’t received any payment for this promotion, just want to reward a good experience.)