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AUSTRALIA: Male Job Losses Rise as Families Count Costs

Stephen de Tarczynski*

MELBOURNE, Jul 21 2009 (IPS) - Despite concerns that female workers would bear the brunt of Australian job losses due to the global economic downturn, employees in the male-dominated manufacturing industry have so far been the hardest hit.

Ken Hewitt, recently unemployed, remains concerned about his family's future Credit: Stephen de Tarczynski/IPS

Ken Hewitt, recently unemployed, remains concerned about his family's future Credit: Stephen de Tarczynski/IPS

Ken Hewitt, 38, is still not accustomed to being at home during normal working hours. Fired from his full-time job as a boilermaker at a local engineering company in June, he sits in the lounge room of his home in the regional centre of Geelong, an hour’s drive from Melbourne, and contemplates his predicament.

"I am worried about money and the future because there’s not much work about," Hewitt tells IPS.

While he believes he lost his job for speaking out regarding workplace safety issues and the treatment of fellow workers by the company’s management, he says he was told his redundancy was "due to a lack of work."

"They were having a downturn in production," Hewitt says of his former employer, Thornton Engineering.

In an effort to mitigate the loss of income, Hewitt’s live-in partner, a truck driver, has had to pick up extra work. She "is doing about 12 or 13-hour days now," says Hewitt.

Like many Australians, the couple have borrowed a substantial amount to pay for the home in which they are raising their three school-aged children. But while his partner’s longer working hours cut into the time she can spend with the kids, Hewitt says that it is too early for the major impacts of unemployment to become apparent.

"We’ve got to wait for a couple of months down the track and then see what’s actually going to happen. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen yet," he says.

This feeling of insecurity is a sentiment well-known to John John, one of 800 workers made redundant from the closure of a Mitsubishi car plant in the South Australian city of Adelaide in March last year.

"I took it bad…I’m 55 now and I’m getting old and it’s hard for me to find another job at my age," says John.

Provided with a severance package after almost 13 years on the job – an amount which made him ineligible for welfare payments – John says that the money will soon be gone.

His wife works one day per week as a casual employee at a deli – casual positions are inherently insecure and do not allow for benefits such as sick leave or holiday pay – while John has so far managed to obtain only intermittent casual jobs through an agency since the plant closed.

This situation has put a strain on their relationship. "We get on each other’s nerves," John tells IPS.

The couple, who still need to pay off more than 100,000 Australian dollars (82,000 U.S. dollars) on their outstanding home loan, had thought that John’s job at Mitsubishi was assured. "I was really upset about it because I don’t know what I’m going to do at the moment," he says.

The experiences of Hewitt and John are just two among the thousands of workers who have lost their jobs in Australia’s manufacturing industry recently, where positions are mostly full-time and held predominantly by men. The industry has been hit particularly hard by the global financial crisis, shedding 80,000 positions in the last twelve months alone.

This has reduced earlier fears that women, particularly in the retail and hospitality sectors, would be most affected by job losses associated with the economic slump. Females constitute the bulk of casual and part-time workers in Australia, regarded by some as the most vulnerable positions in times of economic gloom.

But the latest labour force figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show the country’s unemployment rate was 5.8 percent in June, with male unemployment at 6.1 percent and female unemployment at 5.6 percent.

While both are up from a year ago, there has been a big jump in unemployed males. In June last year, female unemployment was 4.6 percent while for males it was 3.9 percent.

Despite this, there remains a sense of cautious optimism surrounding the ability of Australia to weather the economic storm. The country has so far avoided slipping into recession, with economic stimulus packages and China’s enduring desire for Australian mineral exports resulting in confidence.

But while conjecture remains as to whether the worst is indeed over for the economy, a consensus on unemployment has emerged: hundreds of thousands of people will lose their jobs in the months and years ahead.

Leading economic forecaster Access Economics predicts that some 200,000 jobs will be lost over the next two years while official forecasts from the Treasury are even bleaker.

And although employment in male-dominated industries like manufacturing is again expected to suffer severely, worker’s spouses, children and other family members can also suffer materially and mentally.

IPS spoke to the father of another former worker at the Adelaide Mitsubishi factory.

The man, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that his son "feels like he’s got nothing worth contributing anymore."

This has put pressure on his son’s partner as well as the couple’s two children, aged seven and five. "They feel the effects of the tension [in the house]," he says.

Although the man’s son, 37, has worked as a cleaner for the past three months, the income is far less than what he received at Mitsubishi. It does not stretch enough to service the couple’s home loan.

"That’s the soul-destroying thing for them," says the father. "They go from having a job that sustains them and carries them forward to where they’re just in a state of survival."

Besides the evident financial burden, the father has also been aware of the emotional impact of the loss of the Mitsubishi job, where his son had been employed for 15 years.

"A person’s confidence goes completely. I [used to] look at someone who was quite confident in what he was doing and took pride in things that he did around the house to someone who thought ‘what does it matter? What’s on offer for me? Nothing’," he says.

(*This is part one of a global series that looks at recession and its impact on people's lives.)

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