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Building cars better than waiting on tables: author

Public service: Author Gideon Haigh says Australia’s car-making industry has benefits that extend beyond just rolling out new vehicles.

Gideon Haigh says car industry has moved on from mundane work in dirty factories

General News logo18 Nov 2013

By IAN PORTER

AUSTRALIA’S car parts industry needs to wrong-foot its critics by highlighting the quality and social cohesion that comes from well-paid, high-skill jobs, an industry commentator has warned.

It can do this, in part, by contrasting the wages and conditions in the automotive sector with those in the burgeoning services sector, where work is often part-time and poorly paid, author Gideon Haigh told a room full of industry leaders.

Better known for his tomes on cricket, Mr Haigh has recently written a short book about the Australian car industry titled The End of the Road? Addressing the annual conference of the Federation of Automotive Products Manufacturers last week, Mr Haigh dismissed the perception that jobs in the car industry were dirty and repetitive.

He said the swing towards the services sector was not doing workers any favors.

“People in the services economy have started to notice something over the last decade or so – their jobs suck.,” Mr Haigh said.

“Their work is boring, mundane, insecure and often relentless. They’re waiting tables, flipping burgers, manning phones in call centres, they’re slaving in offices.

“If they are journalists, they are lashed to the wheel of the 24-hour news cycle and barely able to rise from their desks.”

Mr Haigh said that, while preparing his book, he had visited a parts maker and found dedicated people, precise work, a problem-solving mindset and a cost-conscious culture.

He then had lunch with an economist who was familiar with the industry and its issues.

“Over lunch, he leans back and says: ‘What you have to understand, Gideon, is that automotive is very monotonous work’.

“With the memory of my morning still fresh in mind, I looked around the restaurant. And I spied the waiting staff, all standing by looking bored out of their brains.

“ ‘Are you sure’, I asked, ‘because it’s people here who seem to be doing monotonous work. The people I have come from seeing, they actually looked pretty stimulated by what they were doing’.”

Mr Haigh said politicians were always keen to talk about national employment – and unemployment – only in terms of numbers.

“We go on looking at employment in terms of quantity. What we’re overdue is a national conversation about the quality of work.”

He said the car parts industry needed to look at itself as more than just a producer of widgets.

“What you also produce is work. Good work at a fair wage, promoting better citizens, closer families and social cohesion that, in the long term, actually imposes on taxpayers fewer social costs.”

The industry needed to build this into its submissions to the Productivity Commission and the politicians, who generally assess issues only using numbers and statistics, Mr Haigh said.

“In doing so, you move the battle onto a salient where the armies of policy analysts and economists have much less traction because they know their ideas cause massive social dislocation and they don’t like to be reminded of it.”

The natural result of people having a 40-hour job and decent wages was that workers had money to spend and to save, both of which benefited the economy.

He said government intervention in the industry was a means of redistributing wealth and that, strangely enough, it was the Coalition Government of the 1950s and ‘60s that showed it had a firm grasp of the benefits of such policies.

“It’s unfashionable now, if not discredited, but its ends were legitimate and the needs it addresses did not disappear,” Mr Haigh said.

“If you want people to stand on their own two feet, to feel empowered and autonomous as well as relaxed and comfortable, then you have to give them ground beneath.

“A precondition is the availability of good work providing financial security and psychic contentment.

“So when you are next talking to a Coalition politician, you might remind them that when they showed the furthest grasp of this, they held the reins of government for 23 years. That’s a language politicians understand,” he said.

“How much better for us all if people voted for the status quo out of satisfaction, rather than fear.”

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