No one is free, even the birds are chained to the sky

Bob Dylan

imageOver recent years traditional employment relationships have drastically changed with a dramatic increase in contingent or precarious arrangements. The embryonic gig economy and use of a disillusioned and subjugated labour hire resource via an inchoate precariat is noticeable across Australia and overseas. IMAGE SOURCE

McJobs are prevalent throughout most industrial and commercial sectors with the exploitation of vulnerable migrant workers under indentured servitude or peonage. It shows no signs of abating and has polarised society. Engagement often consists of an impassive and loose tripartite agreement between the host employer, the labour hiring agency and the employee, who is effectively a ragged trousered philanthropist. Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic is merely clearing the decks with a wave of creative destruction to create a much more intense and dystopian version of global capitalism via transhumanism with its use of artificial intelligence, big data and suprasurveillance.

The gig economy has created an incipient social class known as precariats, the Epsilons of Huxley’s Brave New World. This occurred following the long march of neoliberalism and has produced an inchoate and volatile powder keg of disenfranchised dissidents and helots. Incomes no longer provide additional benefits such as sick pay or leave entitlements and earnings fluctuate erratically, which generates subsistence without predictability or security. Many of its denizens endure a fragmented existence through contingent labour or underemployment as they flit between intermittent jobs, which are devoid of any career development.

Cohorts of demoralised and embittered adolescents are exposed to a dwindling range of social, cultural, political and economic rights or opportunities. The symptoms include anxiety through insecurity and anomie from despair, which cultivates alienation and then anger with an intolerance towards strangers. In an era of antisocial media that generates legions of virtual friends, society has become even more confused and deeply divided.

The global financial crisis and recent coronavirus pandemic has shattered the chimera of an extravagant lifestyle fuelled by a foreboding supply of Coumadin ® in the form of readily available credit. The uncertainty extends across hordes of susceptible itinerants, who are unable to forge an identity and are merely a dishonoured pay cheque or substantial dental treatment invoice from misery and destitution. This is exacerbated by escalating costs, stagnant wage growth and declining living standards.

Subsequent austerity measures have generated anxiety, which cultivates extremism and erodes the human instincts of fallibility, compassion, tolerance, benevolence and social solidarity. It creates a fertile environment for populist politicians to restructure social protection and promote labour market flexibility. However, their sinister objective is to destroy the humanitarian reforms of democratic governments, which include social welfare, altruistic labour standards and civilised working conditions. This venal populism will only be defeated using politics of paradise with a reinvention of the progressive trinity of equality, liberty and fraternity rather than the traditional dour labourism of industrial society. It will allow precariats to gain control of their lives and achieve social and economic security via an equitable share of tangible assets. Many egalitarians and eminent economists advocate that every legal resident in a society must be provided with the right of a basic income.

Critics claim it is unaffordable, inhibits economic growth and encourages idleness. However, the concept is gaining legitimacy, especially in middle income market economies via arrangements such as the bolsa familia scheme. It may soon become a sociopolitical necessity throughout many other countries although………..It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

In the late 1960s, San Francisco was a milieu of radical activists but it is now a polarised and vainglorious clique of careerist zombies surrounded by a disproportionate mass of misanthropic precariats. Governments must resolve this escalating inequality and heed the comments from the late eminent philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell………..The road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work.

Contingent labour hire has revolutionised employment arrangements and has been furtively marketed by corporations and recruitment companies as a fashionable, amenable and flexible accord. The reality is somewhat different and the entire concept is underpinned by vassalage, exploitation and insecurity with vague terms and conditions of employment. It portends a dystopian future of a disenfranchised workforce hunting for the next gig, to make a minimum payment on maxed out credit cards and buy takeaway pizzas on credit, which are prepared and delivered by subjugated associates.

The socioeconomic repercussions of the gig economy are rather ominous and it is creating a society where the unfortunate many are toiling for a privileged few with a premonition of indentured servitude and peonage. An indentured servant or peon is provided with money and placed under debt. The person receiving money or an equivalent benefit contracts a legal obligation fortified with criminal penalties to settle the debt by providing labour to the original money master or nominated delegates. The servants invariably borrow more money to meet monthly expenses and become entrapped in a quagmire of cyclical debt. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln delivered his infamous Gettysburg address, which promoted the concept of representative democracy. This was followed by the thirteenth amendment of the American constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude.

Following the union and intensification of corporate and state power, especially since the late 1970s, representative democracy has degenerated into government versus the people. Warfare has usurped welfare with the emergence of an elective dictatorship via a kakistocracy with a subservient gig economy. In 2015 the State Government of Victoria announced an inquiry into contingent employment arrangements and the labour hire industry. Additional covert investigations by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Fairfax Media have exposed repeated widespread exploitation and irregularities throughout many industrial and commercial sectors.

There are almost 6000 agencies providing contract labour hire across Australia and it is often a legitimate and convenient mechanism for engaging workers. However, the process has been manipulated by many rogue operators to obscure duty of care, circumvent legislative requirements and eviscerate labour standards. This involves exploitation of vulnerable employees, especially migrants on temporary visas and includes systemic noncompliance with statutory work health and safety requirements.

Franchising with the use of contingent labour is widespread across Australia. It is particularly evident amongst the agricultural, contract cleaning, horticultural, meat processing and retail sectors and has a significant impact on the Australian economy. Several recent high profile examples include the embezzlement of 7-Eleven, Domino’s Pizza and Retail Food Group employees, subjugation of migrant fruit pickers, exploitation of Aerocare ground support staff and the manipulation of Tip Top bakery delivery drivers.

A Good Call

A joint media investigation into Australia’s largest convenience store chain unearthed a rotten culture of exploitation and embezzlement throughout its empire. It included systemic underpayment of wages and falsification of payroll records. The blame dichotomy was almost immediate with the myopic corporate head office condemning rogue franchisees. Its business franchising model is effectively indentured servitude and peonage, which systemically manipulates vulnerable migrants on student working visas and the deception is widespread across its many outlets throughout Australia.

Allan Fels, a former chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, diplomatically described Russell Withers as a forceful businessman. Its franchising scheme was considered one of the toughest, inequitable and coercive business models ever encountered. Despite the many bright lights, ostentatious advertising, opulence and corporate decadence a ruthless heart of darkness prevailed. This was underpinned by corporate impiety and perfidy with a contemptuous disregard for Australian industrial relations and workplace health and safety legislation.

Making a crust

Shares in Domino Pizza Enterprises Limited have surged more than 2500% since listing on the Australian Stock Exchange almost twelve years ago. In 2016, the organisation recorded a net profit after tax of almost $90 million and is acclaimed as a phenomenal success story throughout the Australian franchising sector. However, a recent Fairfax Media investigation reveals more turpitude and corporate impiety. The nation’s largest pizza chain persistently extorts its franchisees who subsequently exploit a vulnerable migrant workforce, whilst investors reap substantial dividends. It is yet another example of Americanisation with a race to the bottom and the winner takes all philosophy of callous casino capitalism. The investigation revealed widespread underpayment of wages, illegal transactions involving working visas and a delivery driver scam to circumvent penalty rates. Its dictatorial corporate office exerts relentless pressure on franchisees to expand sales whilst stores are bartered on generated turnover, not profit. It receives royalties from each sale as Australians chomp through one million of its pizzas every week and rather ironically some are even bought by construction site managers to celebrate a project’s achievement of zero harm.

After visiting many outlets across the country, investigative journalists found franchisees were often distressed and many struggled to make ends meet. Some were haemorrhaging thousands of dollars and the exploitation of its vulnerable migrant workforce was essential to remain afloat. Blind Freddy on a galloping horse can easily envisage this trajectory and predict the repercussions of embezzlement, escalating psychosocial risks, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, increasing divorce rates and suicide. In 2016 Don Meij, its chief executive officer, claimed more than $21 million in salary, benefits and shares, which is almost $11000 an hour or 20% of net profit. Delivery workers received $19 an hour and were recently expected to embrace pay cuts of $2 per hour and relinquish weekend and shift work penalty rates. Its chairman and major shareholder is the fast food mogul, Jack Cowin with an ascribed wealth of $1.8 billion. He is the founder and director of Competitive Foods Australia and recently declared penalty rates were……A thing of the past. However, whilst evading the taxman and contributing to the obesity epidemic, it may have escaped his meticulous attention to detail that Abe Lincoln abolished slavery way back in 1865 and indentured servitude, peonage or blackbirding are illegal in Australia.

Racketeering, fraud and greed

The Retail Food Group based in Queensland’s Gold Coast operates the largest food franchise network in Australia with a market capitalisation of $800 million. The iconic brands include Donut King, Brumby’s, Gloria Jean’s, Pizza Capers, Crust Gourmet Pizzas and Michel’s Patisserie with over 2500 outlets across the country. Its proven business models, which have been perfected over several decades are supplemented by a highly skilled support network to ensure the success of its franchise systems. However, a recent Fairfax Media investigation paints a slightly different picture and provides further substantive evidence of a disturbing trend throughout the retail sector.

After visiting many outlets across Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria media reports confirm widespread underpayment of wages and relinquished penalty rates. Franchisees are struggling to survive and rely heavily on the benevolence of families and close friends. Much of the malaise is attributed to a brutal business model and relentless corporate pressure with crippling fees, excessive royalties, rising labour costs, increasing rents and escalating food taxes. Many outlets are for sale and during the past year hundreds of stores have closed and franchisees have walked away with nothing but misery and a mountain of debt.

Its chthonic chief executive officer and managing director, Tony Alford was once described as the richest executive on Queensland’s Gold Coast with an amassed fortune of $147 million. Following almost two decades with the company he recently stepped down, along with his partner and business associate, Alicia Atkinson and their byzantine commercial interests remain mysterious. Reports suggest the couple are diversifying assets with the recent purchase of a $6.4 million trophy home in Port Douglas and a $5.5 million opulent manor at Tamborine Mountain in the Gold Coast hinterland. Additional property consisting of Byron Bay beachfront development blocks is up for sale and expected to raise almost $40 million. Racketeering, fraud and greed are not leadership attributes although profit and accrued wealth are the only benchmarks of success in a climate of casino capitalism. It has left a trail of despair amongst many franchisees, which includes decimated savings, broken marriages and destitution. Statements of good corporate governance or zero harm are merely superficial hogwash and resemble the excessive froth on tepid dishwater that is purveyed as flat white coffee at many Starbucks or Retail Food Group outlets.

Grapes of wrath

A federal government Seasonal Worker Program assists business needs across most industrial sectors throughout rural Australia. Temporary migrants contribute almost $3.5 billion to its economy each year and its agricultural and horticultural industrial sectors are especially dependent on seasonal workers and exploitation of itinerant workers. In December 2009, a German backpacker died whilst working for Barbera Farms on a tomato plantation near Childers. The cause of death was not released but following an extensive investigation and regulatory authority prosecution, the company pleaded guilty to breaching work health and safety legislation. It operated a labour intensive and contingent workforce but failed to supply drinking water for its employees and control the risk of dehydration and heat stress. More recently in November 2017, a Belgian tourist collapsed on a farm near Ayr in North Queensland whilst picking watermelons. The victim was transported to hospital and died the following morning from suspected heat stroke.

In March 2015, the Australian government voted against a broad ranging senate inquiry into exploitation of migrant workers. It was dismissed by our termagant employment minister, (who has a unique but rather endearing ability to make her face disappear when opening her mouth), as being politically motivated. However, the Forsyth report into contingent labour hire in Victoria details extensive anomalies involving itinerant fruit pickers across the Murray Basin. This was substantiated by a covert media investigation, which disclosed embezzlement, racism, intimidation, extortion, precarious safety practices, sexual assault and many other misdemeanours. It revealed widespread systemic abuse of temporary working visa arrangements with the circumvention of legislative requirements and labour standards by many rogue recruitment organisations. Most itinerants are engaged for seasonal harvesting and are occasionally required to work up to eighteen hours a day. Reports confirm one female employee received just $3.95 an hour, whilst contingent labour hire organisations manipulate the scheme to reap substantial profits and much of the produce ends up at major food retail outlets. The suppliers are subject to rigorous food safety and quality audits and fulfil specification criteria or the contract is cancelled. However, the Dickensian conditions endured by many itinerant labourers are conveniently disregarded by the large supermarket chains and any response from state governments and their dilatory regulatory authorities is often nonchalant.

Into the light of a dark black night

In July 2018, the federal government introduced the Pacific Labour Scheme, which complements the Seasonal Worker Program to boost economic activity across rural and regional Australia. This will resolve labour shortages and provide additional opportunities for Pacific islanders to earn income and develop skills. It allegedly incorporates robust safeguards to prevent exploitation of vulnerable migrants although despite the rhetoric recent reports indicate the scheme is merely indentured servitude, peonage or blackbirding and reminiscent of Kanaka trading throughout the 1870s.

At Inverell in northern New South Wales, a Brisbane based organisation supplies contingent labour to the local Bindaree Beef meat processing facility as an accredited provider under the program. It inveigles many naïve migrants via a lucrative opportunity to earn good money through hard work, which enables them to care for their impoverished dependents throughout the South Pacific islands. However, the stark reality soon emerged and included substantial weekly deductions for sparse overcrowded furnished accommodation and other indirect expenses. The situation is exacerbated by the recent coronavirus pandemic with escalating public health risks and as numerous indigenous Australians will attest, you don’t have to be behind bars in a prison to feel incarcerated…….….Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly.

In April 2016 at the Toowoomba showgrounds a teenager participating in the federal government’s jobactive program under its work for the dole scam suffered fatal head injuries after falling from a flatbed trailer, which was being towed by a tractor. A regulatory authority investigation concluded that participants were expected to perform duties under minimal supervision with inappropriate inductions and insufficient training. The regional employment services provider was prosecuted and received a $90,000 penalty although no conviction was recorded. Charges were also laid against the Royal Agricultural Society of Queensland and the work for the dole project coordinator. Meanwhile the bereaved family was left chasing smoke with many unanswered questions. The work experience program was incongruous with state workers’ compensation requirements and merely provided personal accident insurance. Despite repeated requests under freedom of information a harridan federal minister for employment refused to release details of any risk assessment covering the activity or provide a formal report into the fatality.

Similar furtive arrangements have been implemented throughout the health care sector, which exploit indigenous Australians and other vulnerable workers via pathways or transition to employment programs. Following the recent bush fires that ravaged through rural and regional Australia, the deception encompasses and inveigles backpackers with extensions to their working visas. Irrespective of how the scheme is packaged and marketed this service economy serfdom is merely indentured servitude, vassalage or blackbirding and the consequences will be reminiscent of the disastrous home insulation program under Kevin Rudd. The irascible narcissist once described socialism as an arcane 19th century doctrine and was recently rewarded with life membership of the Australian Labor Party although expulsion or rustication would have been a much more condign option.

The incumbent prime minister proclaims slavery never existed across Australia and conveniently disregards the exploitation of almost two hundred Gurindji stockmen under Lord Vestey at Wave Hill station throughout the 1960s. Maybe the devout evangelist should expand his horizons and not just read one book but read ‘em all. The inflammatory rhetoric escalated with extraordinary claims that recent protests were usurped by left-wing activists and demonstrators at subsequent events should be arrested and formally charged with breaching prescribed requirements during the coronavirus pandemic. A relentless stream of reactive and didactic doublespeak is fraught with contradictory statements littered with rank hypocrisy and arational or incoherent logic, which fuels the tank of cynicism. Indeed, since the late 1990s neoliberal governments in Australia have embarked on a ruthless crusade, which has emasculated health and safety legislation and rendered the framework somewhat meaningless. The ideology advocates deregulation, diminution of trade union power and privatisation to provide corporate behemoths and their socially autistic executives with a malevolent freedom to harm amidst a neoliberal maelstrom. It manifests via an epidemic of occupational diseases, recurring disasters and increasing psychosocial issues with escalating occupational violence. This undermines a fundamental tenet of a statute that binds the Crown and prescribes requirements to secure the health and safety of people at work. It is exacerbated by an incalculable democratic deficit between rapidly diminishing community expectations and a tribal parliamentary system, which embarks on a frenzied, turbulent and eternal race to the bottom. This was recently antagonised by deplorable vandalism from Rio Tinto with its reckless destruction of ancient Aboriginal drop shelter carvings at Juukan Gorge during expansion of its iron ore mining operations in the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia.

The patronising disposition of unaccountable power

In the current climate of catabolic casino capitalism with its brutal winner takes all ideology the concept of emancipation is underpinned by Ayn Rand objectivism with its individualistic and materialistic philosophy. This merely offers freedom of choice for purchasing a relentless supply of disposable commodities, which most individuals typically want but do not necessarily need. It also allows an unrestrained pursuit of leisure activities and is essentially an enslavement to rampant unfettered capitalism. If freedom is curtailed by social distancing and mandatory requirements covering use of face masks, it can hardly be described as emancipation and the coronavirus pandemic has merely exposed the senselessness of liberty, especially from a neoliberal concept. Indeed freedom requires historical consciousness, sacrifice and social responsibility.

The German philosopher, Erich Fromm classified freedom into distinct negative and positive taxonomies and the term was defined from a sociopolitical perspective by the radical activist, Angela Davis who proclaimed individual and social rights were interdependent. This abjured negative freedom and its inherent focus on rejecting government interference and emphasised the positive aspects with a collective right to demand decent employment conditions, health care, housing and education supported by an equitable criminal justice system.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom almost three years have elapsed since the Grenfell Tower inferno in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which claimed the lives of at least 72 residents. It received extensive worldwide media coverage and the immediate aftermath exposed the brutality of rampant unfettered neoliberalism. The candle light vigils with ample assistance from the mainstream and antisocial media furtively and repeatedly reinforce that it was an unavoidable and horrific tragedy until…….A lie told often enough becomes the truth. However, much like Aberfan or Hillsborough, there is never any closure. The psychological turmoil persists and the profound suffering and pain endured by the families and survivors is immense and immeasurable. Attempts to quantify the angst and despair with licentious offers of compensation merely fans the flames on the carousel of culpability. Birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas rekindle the grief and the only parole for the bereaved is death or dementia.

A significant contributory factor to the disaster was the cheap flammable cladding that embellished the tower, which is unsuitable for buildings over ten metres tall. It was merely installed for aesthetic reasons and is banned in several countries. The council could have purchased fire resistant material from the same company for an additional £2 per square metre. No charges have been laid and corporate and state interests with their legal clout and witnesses dictate the pace and trajectory of justice. This leaves the bereaved families and dependents chasing smoke via the patronising disposition of unaccountable power and justice delayed is merely justice denied.

The peak safety body in Australia was successful in a recent bid to host the World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, which will be held at the Sydney’s International Convention Centre in 2023. The organisation proudly proclaims it provides a collective voice for the safety profession and advocates with courage on policy to improve legislation, regulations and standards. Following a prolonged bout of internecine bickering and disunity its mediocre and somewhat shameful performance over several decades has destroyed any remaining skerrick of integrity in the organisation. The one trick dog and pony circus is merely a shiver searching for a spine, which was quite evident following the recent national but rather calamitous launch of its OHS Body of Knowledge chapter entitled Ethics and Professional Practice.

Its forthcoming national conference has been curtailed following the coronavirus pandemic and restructured using a virtual online format. The event is promoted via a vainglorious smoke and mirrors theme of Power and Politics although the presentations from its internationally acclaimed thought leaders enigmatically and inexplicably fail to address the subject matter. Previous conferences and interim webinars merely regurgitate a relentless formulaic stream of turgid sesquipedalian pseudo-academic sludge and….third rate material delivered by even lower grade acquiescent minds is hardly a necessity of life.

The organisation continues lobbying state and federal governments in a sinister attempt to legislate its professional certification scheme, which is merely a cash cow that undermines the Australian Qualifications Framework. This will not significantly reduce workplace health and safety risks and it will eventually degenerate into a bureaucratic displacement activity that inveigles naïve acolytes with junk science. Meanwhile, it provides the organisation with a lucrative income to secure its fiefdom and enables gullible participants to drink its brand of Kool Aid.

Cohorts of hapless bedwetters and parasites have subliminally commodified or uberised occupational health and safety and Australia’s peak safety body is merely another cog in an enormous festering Ponzi scheme. It embraces pyramid selling with aggressive and deceptive telemarketing and operates like a captured agency with an obedience to the orthodoxy supplemented by intellectual trepidation…….The opposite of courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow . This leads many disillusioned practitioners to conclude that its peak safety body is part of the problem and the following lyrics from the late George Harrison resonate:

Have you seen the little piggies crawling in the dirt?

And for all the little piggies life is getting worse

Always having dirt to play around in

Have you seen the bigger piggies in their starched white shirts?
You will find the bigger piggies stirring up the dirt
Always have clean shirts to play around in
Everywhere there’s lots of piggies living piggy lives
You can see them out for dinner with their piggy wives
Clutching forks and knives to eat their bacon
One more time………Oink, oink, oink

Bernard Corden

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2 Replies to “Blackbird”

  1. Bernard. The words you use are enough for many reader to switch off almost immediately. Use common English mate. It is diverse enough that you can use many words to say the same thing. Swallowing a dictionary of convoluted words does little to impress and much to render your work useless.

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