Australia’s modern working class

14 May 2022
Eleanor Morley

This article is part of a series on social classes in Australia, which also includes pieces on the ruling class and the middle class.


More than 160 years ago, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, in the Communist Manifesto, described workers as those “who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital”. In the capitalist markets, where all things—food, clothing, housing, services, utilities and more—are bought and sold, a worker is someone with only one thing to trade: their capacity to labour. While the capitalists own the productive land, factories and offices, the workers offer themselves only as the human component of industry.

Viewed this way, class is not a random grab bag of income, cultural interests or even family lineage, but a definite relationship to the way that society produces the things we need to survive. For workers, the relationship to production is an unequal one. Workers might own some private property in the form of a house, a car and some other treasured possessions. But they don’t own the “means of production”—whether that be giant mines and factories, or a small corner store—but provide the labour to make it all run. In return, they get a wage that is lower than the value that they create for their boss.

The labour market appears to be full of choices between different jobs at different income levels and in different locations. But that choice is constrained; because almost all productive private property is in the hands of capitalists, workers are compelled to submit to the demands and directions of a boss. To opt out of the market is to opt into destitution—you work, or you starve.

“Masses of labourers, crowded into the factory, are organised like soldiers”, Marx and Engels went on to write. “As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the capitalist class, and of the capitalist state; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual capitalist manufacturer himself.”

Workers are also characterised by their lack of power over what they and others do in the workplace—someone above them is making all the decisions. This is what separates the working class from sections of the middle classes, such as middle management, who also work for a boss and receive a wage. Unlike workers, managers have some power over the workplace, they hire and fire new workers, will direct activities and tasks, and have some autonomy in how they manage their own days.

There can be shades of grey here: team leaders who might draw up rosters and set daily tasks, but who then carry out the same work as the rest of their team, or meal delivery drivers who choose when to clock in and which orders to take but are otherwise subject to similar conditions as other workers.

The Marxist definition of the working class covers a broad cross-section of the population. It includes both blue- and white-collar workers: those who work down mines or build bridges, but also nurses, teachers, receptionists, waiters and many others. Importantly, class is not determined by income. Some workers can earn more than some shopkeepers (the median weekly wage for mining workers, for example, is $2,325), though in general the middle class earn more than workers.

How big is the Australian working class? Out of a labour force of 13 million people, workers make up about two-thirds of the total. It is difficult to get precise figures because standard surveys don’t use the categories that are the most informative. Using occupational and employment data provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, we can subtract managers, administrators and professionals (apart from teachers, nurses and other working-class occupations), who are likely to be middle or ruling class, from the total labour force, as well as employers and the self-employed. The resulting figure is around 65 percent of the workforce.

This, however, probably understates the size of the working class, as many people who are legally considered self-employed are independent contractors who employ no-one else and participate in the economy as workers. Once the dependent children and partners of workers, pensioners and other retirees who once had to work for a wage, and the temporarily unemployed are added, an overwhelming majority of the Australian population is part of the working class.

What kind of jobs are Australian workers doing today, and how much has changed over time? Much has been made of the decline of traditional labouring jobs in recent years. There have indeed been significant changes to the spread of workers across different sectors over the past 60 years—an inevitable product of the constant restructuring of capitalist industry.

According to the Bureau of Statistics, 26 percent of the workforce was employed in manufacturing in 1966. Today it is 8 percent. In 1964, tradespeople, labourers and miners made up 37 percent of the workforce. That had dropped by about 10 percentage points by 2010. Yet these figures can be misleading. The construction industry is now the third largest employer in the country and is projected to continue to grow in coming years. And many jobs that technically fall into the “services” sector are still forms of manual labourtruck drivers, warehouse workers, shelf stackers and the like.

Most white-collar work does not live up to the stereotype of a cushy, well-paid office job. Australian call centres employ 300,000 workers whose conditions are not totally dissimilar to the nineteenth century factory that Marx and Engels described: a rapid pace of work that is tightly regimented down to the second. The same is true for nurses, most of whom are run off their feet in understaffed hospitals, working twelve-hour shifts in gruelling conditions. Health care and social assistance is now the largest industry in the country, also employing midwives, care workers, cooks, cleaners, social workers and more. High demand for labour in the industry due to an ageing population and poor wages and conditions (the average nurse earns $10,000 less than the national median wage) mean the industry has become a key destination for targeted migration programs; 21 percent of newly registered nurses are immigrants, as are 50-70 percent of workers in aged care.

The other major employers are in the retail trades (sales assistant is now the largest occupational category—there are half a million of them), accommodation and food services, and education and training. There are major labour shortages in the construction industry, health care, logistics, administrative assistance, IT services and various teaching roles. The COVID-induced border closure has created rapid shortages in industries that rely heavily on migrant labour—including fruit picking (that the government requires backpackers to complete a harvest season to secure a second working holiday visa indicates how terrible this work is) and hospitality.

To say that all workers are members of a common class is not to suggest that all working conditions are the same. Migrant workers cleaning office blocks late into the night on minimal pay arguably have it tougher than a receptionist on an average salary working in a slow office. Life in the mining towns of the Latrobe Valley and the Illawarra is a world away from the inner suburbs of major cities.

“On the one hand all labour is ... an expenditure of human labour power, and in its character of identical abstract human labour, it created and forms the value of commodities”, Marx wrote in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. “On the other hand, all labour is the expenditure of human labour power in a special form and with a definite aim, and in this, its character of concrete useful labour, it produces use values.”

Concrete forms of labour (digging a ditch, teaching a student, entering data into spreadsheets) differ from one another and produce different products (education, clothing, a car, a plate of food), which Marx called “use values”. But labour also exists in general—regardless of the particular task, working for a boss produces value that can be realised as profit in the form of money when the product is sold. Workers might be engaged in different tasks in different locations, but all spend their days producing value for their bosses, who repay only a fraction of it in wages, and use the rest to reinvest or accumulate as profit.

Contrary to the stereotype of a white guy in a blue singlet, the modern Australian working class is diverse in age, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation—much more so than the middle and ruling classes. Belonging to an additional oppressed group tends to be reflected in lower incomes, less desirable jobs and higher rates of unemployment. Women make up 47 percent of the workforce, but the gender pay gap persists at 14.3 percent (this is somewhat skewed by a larger gap among the middle classes). Indigenous workers are three times as likely to be unemployed as others. The unemployment rate for transgender workers is also, at 19 percent, triple that of the general population. Disabled workers, on average, earn only 66 cents for every dollar earned by an able-bodied worker. But it is worth keeping in mind that differentials in earnings and opportunity among workers are insignificant when compared to the difference between all workers and the ruling class.

Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world. The vast majority of workers live in major cities or large regional towns40 percent of the population live in Sydney and Melbourne alone. To take New South Wales as an example, 70 percent of jobs are in Sydney, with another 11 percent in the next two largest regional areas of the Illawarra and Hunter.

It is sometimes argued that the working class has been fractured by the rise of the “precariat”: a new class of casually employed, predominantly young people. It is true that casual and part-time employment has risen at a faster rate than permanent full-time jobs since the mid-twentieth century, but the situation is overstated.

Casualisation is most pronounced in very young workers (which could be due to more students now needing a job on the side as Youth Allowance has been reduced while rents have increased) and workers close to or in retirement. Most of these changes took place during the 1980s and 1990s; the distribution of different forms of employment has remained relatively stable since. Full-time employment has barely dropped among the core workforce (those aged 25 to 54); more than three-quarters of them work full time. And many people employed on part-time or casual contracts still have relatively traditional working patterns: one-third of casual employees work full-time hours over a five-day week and two-thirds work the same number of hours each week.

There is an argument that Australian workers have been bought off, and a relatively high standard of living has edged them up into the middle classes. Most Australian workers do have a more comfortable lifestyle than their counterparts in poorer countries. But increases in national wealth have not been distributed equallythe rich have been getting richer, while workers have become burdened with more debt, and are increasingly living pay cheque to pay cheque. The bottom 60 percent of households hold just 16 percent of private wealth.

This growing inequality is presented in the media as a “generational war”: cashed up baby boomers screwing over their millennial children. It’s not hard to see how, on the surface at least, this seems to be accurate. The peculiar conditions of the post-WWII period made life financially easier for much of the older generation of workers. Relatively higher wages and lower property prices meant that many working-class families were able to buy their first home in their mid-20s, the cost of tertiary education was significantly lower or free, and better social welfare reduced costs for health care and other social services. Granted, this is not the case for everyone over the age of 50; there are a lot of poor pensioners in Australia.

A 2019 “generation gap” report from the Grattan Institute says that “poorer young Australians have less wealth than their predecessors and are far less likely to own a home”, and, despite the stereotype of millennial financial hedonism, “younger people are spending less on non-essential items such as alcohol, clothing, and personal care, and more on necessities such as housing, than three decades ago”. High levels of debt, stagnant wages and skyrocketing house prices are all bearing down on those who can’t rely on wealthy parents to bankroll their lifestyle.

The boomer vs millennial analysis masks the class divide that runs within each of these generations. Take housing. According to the Australian Tax Office, slightly more than 2 million people, or 20 percent of Australian households, own one or more investment properties. In recent years, while interest rates have been low, property has become a lucrative investment for the wealthy, who might otherwise have invested their fortunes in other financial instruments. This inequality between older generations flows down to young people: those with wealthy parents can tap into the bank of mum and dad to secure a deposit for their own home, avoiding the financial hardships of young workers.

Inequality persists in other institutions. A Save Our Schools report released in 2020 documents the widening gap between funding for public and private education. Between 2009 and 2018, income for private and Catholic schools increased nine to ten times more than for public schools: 17 percent per student in private schools, 20 percent in Catholic schools and only 2 percent in public schools. Less funding, standardised testing and a scaled system for final grades result in worse educational and career prospects for working-class children. Add to this hefty inheritance and financial gifts for the children of the wealthy, and the result is an inter-generational entrenchment of the class divide.

Workers are not just victims of inequality and exploitation. They are also political agents, capable of uniting to struggle against current conditions, and, one day, against the capitalist economy and state in its entirety. Their unique position as the creators of all value is what makes this possible.

“Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers”, Marx wrote in The Poverty of Philosophy. “The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle ... this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle.”

The nature of employment objectively creates a working class, but workers are not always cognisant of their membership of it—52 percent of the population, according to a 2015 Australian National University poll, self-identify as middle class. Even if there is a broader working-class consciousness, this does not automatically produce the knowledge that workers can run society without bosses, managers and a capitalist state. But when workers start to organise and fightwhether over wages, working conditions or other issues like climate changethose struggles can expand across workplaces and throughout society, and develop into a political challenge to the ruling structures of capitalism.

Organisation and struggle are currently at a low ebb for Australian workers. Union membership is just 14 percent of the workforce, down from more than 50 percent in the 1970s. Strike rates, predictably, have also plummeted in recent decades. According to the Centre for Future Work, the relative frequency of industrial action has declined by 97 percent since the 1970s. There is also no mass political party that represents working-class interests.

This retreat will not last forever. The working class will exist for as long as capitalism survives. There is no other way for the ruling class to generate profits than by exploitation—paying workers less than the value they create. The never ending struggle between workers and their bosses, over who gets what slice of the economic pie, can be hidden, even for decades, but eventually resurfaces as open conflict between the two classes.

Capitalism produces other horrors that disrupt working-class life, such as war, economic crisis, climate change and global pandemics. Moments of great crisis often have been a catalyst for the re-emergence of struggle, the reconstruction of workers’ movements and the development of political organisations that can lead the struggle to victory over the entire system of exploitation.

Australian workers are far from realising this potential. But they still make up the largest class in Australia, collectively producing and distributing all the goods and services that are made in, or enter, the country. Workers are spread across every industry, in every town and city, encompassing the broadest cross-section of the population. They are still a powerful force.

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