The super loophole being exploited by the gig economy

Imagine what it must feel like not to receive compulsory superannuation – despite it being a mandated part of our employment landscape for more than three decades. For many Australian workers this is a reality.

The Super Guarantee legislates that employers have to pay super contributions of 11 per cent of an employee’s ordinary time earnings, regardless of whether they’re a casual or full time employee.

But the legislation that is meant to protect working rights falls short for an increasingly large group of workers.

We’re referring to the gig economy, which appeared out of nowhere around 2006 when Menulog launched Australia’s first online meal delivery service and has since grown nine-fold to employ as many as 250,000 workers across platforms such as Upwork, Fiverr, Uber and Airtasker.

While the system is providing Australians with flexibility, autonomy and options for an additional source of income, its participants are also being exploited. More than half of gig workers are under 35 and a similarly a large number are international students and migrants who can struggle to get a foothold onto the career ladder in Australia – sometimes due to language or cultural setbacks. It appears nearly two decades later, the super system appears to still be playing catch-up with a changing workforce.

Despite some contractors being eligible to be paid super if they meet the additional eligibility requirements, gig economy workers miss out on the same rights as most working Australians. These workers trade basic workplace entitlements, such as sick leave and holiday pay, for flexibility, and critically, they also miss out on the Superannuation Guarantee, despite the national mandate.

Scratch the surface, and it’s clear to see that a significant loophole exists in current labour force regulations, meaning that most gig workers are likely to be classified as independent contractors.

The superannuation system was built to ensure that Australians can retire comfortably without having to rely on the Government-funded Age Pension, taking significant pressure off government coffers so that funds can be diverted into health, education and other critical infrastructures.

Quite simply, it’s a crime not to pay super. The Australian Taxation Office clamps down on employers that don’t pay superannuation in full, or who fail to keep adequate records. The system works well, and is under constant review as reforms continue to make improvements solely aimed at growing our retirement nest egg.

But despite the removal of the $450 threshold so that workers earning even a small amount from an employer in a month are still eligible for super, the legislation hasn’t yet caught up with the gig economy, creating a deep chasm between the haves, and the have nots.

This is because most gig workers are paid per job, and not as part of a company’s payroll. In the eyes of the Australian Taxation Office, these workers are considered self-employed, or sole traders. As such, any super they put aside for themselves is a choice, rather than a legal requirement.

As a result, gig workers risk falling well short of the super they should have accrued during their working life, bringing about longer term concerns around financial security. For example, if someone worked in the industry for a decade, their super balance upon retirement would dip to $92,000 less than a minimum wage employee. Consequently, gig economy workers are more likely to rely solely on the government-funded Age Pension in retirement.

This disparity raises questions about current superannuation legislation, which doesn’t go far enough to provide protections for all workers.

While Industry Super chief Bernie Dean has made public calls for gig workers to be paid super so they can be self-sufficient in retirement, it has so far fallen on deaf ears.

Fair Work Legislation sets out to close loopholes by creating minimum standards for all workers and proposes a new definition of casual employment, but until all workers earn the same rate of super regardless of how they are employed, it doesn’t look to be all that fair.

So what is our responsibility to those caught in the gap?

Long term disparities about who is and isn’t entitled to Super raises serious questions about inequities in the system and how we consider all types of workers as part of our community and the economy.

While real change comes with policy and regulation, workers do bear some responsibility to prevent inequity falling on them. With many workers in the industry lacking practical information about their rights, education is paramount. Users of the gig economy should seek to better understand industry rules and their options, which starts by asking the right questions: What protections do I have by taking on this job? What are the risks involved? Am I setting up the right fund for myself? And how can I best think about my future self?

And in the meantime, the law might just catch up with consideration for all.

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I changed my mind about prisons

Every time the face of a criminal flashed up on the screen of our flatscreen TV, my parents would never hesitate to condemn the perpetrator, and demand the prolonged imprisonment of the thief or shoplifter.

For violent crimes, the death penalty would often come into conversation. 

My siblings and I, perched on the leather couch, would listen open-mouthed, our young minds unable to comprehend how anyone would even consider such an act. I thought to myself: anyone who went to jail was inherently evil, different to normal people. 

Yet, as I grew older and started to reach beyond the sheltered confines of our upper-middle-class home, that perspective gradually fell apart. 

I have come to realise that our prison system is dysfunctional, a warped interpretation of right and wrong. A system designed for retribution, that essentially calls an end to a person’s potential in life, is both ethically and practically malfunctioning. Intended to benefit society through rightful punishment and restorative justice, it is instead one of the largest perpetrators of discrimination and often even worsens a prisoner’s life after release. 

For instance, consider the story of Wesley Ford: a gay Whadjuk/Ballardong man, who battled with a drug addiction that fuelled 13 prison stints over two decades. He was just one of the 60% of Australian prison detainees who have been previously incarcerated. We have one of the highest recidivism rates in the world and, in a world where over half of prisoners expect to be homeless after release, and it is nearly impossible to secure employment, is that really such a surprise? 

Our sentences do not tend to be harsh enough to fully realise the power of deterrence, nor are the quality or quantity of support services anywhere near sufficient to rehabilitate offenders.

In the words of Ford, ‘There were services there, but it is such a farce, because … they are so few and far between hardly anyone can get onto them.’ 

This also promotes a cycle of crime, further disadvantaging minority groups. Despite making up only 2% of the overall population, Indigenous Australians constitute nearly 30% of prisoners. They are twice as likely to have been refused bail by police before their first court appearance. 

As for a solution, the harsher approach, employed by regimes such as Russia, is evidently unethical. Criminal behaviour must be punished, but the unnecessary imposition of prolonged sentences or even death penalties for minor offenders is closer to a violation of basic human rights, rather than the intended enforcement of justice. This is supported by various ethical frameworks, be it a utilitarian goal to preserve life, or the Christian belief in grace. Instead, especially for those who are low-risk offenders, restorative justice measures should be utilised to punish behaviour whilst also incentivising criminals to make better decisions. This approach has been proven to work, as evidenced by the Norwegian system. 

With a system of small, community facilities that focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society, Norway’s prison system ensures that prisoners do not lose their humanity and dignity whilst incarcerated. The facilities are typically located close to the inmates’ homes, ensuring that they can maintain relationships, and the cells resemble dormitories rather than jails. Norwegian prisoners have the right to vote, receive an education, and see family. 

This approach may seem radical, but it has been incredibly successful in Norway. The Scandinavian nation has one of the lowest recidivism rates (20% within 2 years), a dramatic decrease since the 1990s (70-80%, like modern-day USA) when it had a more traditional system. Furthermore, ensuring that prisoners can live normal lives after release benefits the economy. Fewer people in prison means more capable adults available for employment, and many prisoners even leave with additional skills, leading to a 40% increase in employment rates after prison for previously unemployed inmates. 

Yet, one drawback is the higher expenses of this system. Norway spends an average of 93,000 USD per year per prisoner, which is potentially unviable for countries with larger prison populations. Such a proposal would also likely be controversial amongst voters, unhappy with their taxpayer dollars being spent on criminals. 

And might it be unethical to divert taxpayer funds to lawbreakers? To what extent does one deserve forgiveness? When does an act become unforgivable? 

The issue is extremely complex, and realistically, a slightly different setup might be necessary for each unique society. Yet, the approach is undeniably more ethical, and benefits of rehabilitation are well-documented. In Australia, a country with a low population and high recidivism rates, success is highly likely.

Through the recognition that lawbreaking does not definitively indicate moral character and that factors such as socioeconomic status, bias, and even racism can impact the likelihood of incarceration, we can begin to see prisoners as human, too.

Forgiveness is a moral imperative and this is something that our prison system should reflect. 

 

I changed my mind about prisons‘ by Sophie Yu is one of the Highly Commended essays in our Young Writers’ Competition. Find out more about the competition here.       

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Gen Z and eco-existentialism: A cigarette at the end of the world

“Where ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise.” – Thomas Grey

Gen Z live inside of an hourglass. The sand leaks steadily from underneath our feet at an imperceptible rate so that we don’t realise the ground is slipping away until we are plummeting toward the bottleneck. The 21st century has been characterised by the impending, seemingly unstoppable doom of climate change and ecosystem collapse. There is a rising epidemic amongst young people of feelings of anxiety and dread towards a future made uncertain by global warming. This sensation, the drop in the pit of our stomachs from a fall that doesn’t seem to be ending, has caused mixed reactions amongst Gen Z. While those who use sustainability as an antidote to their anxiety are praised, others who appear to act in complete denial of climate change are frequently vilified. Young people who smoke cigarettes and partake in fast fashion appear to show blatant disregard for the impact of their actions on the climate. 

Unethical behaviours amongst young people are often attributed to delinquency and delayed cognitive development. While, in some cases, this may be true, the impact of climate change on moral decision-making in today’s youth is often overlooked. Gen Z hold the heavy responsibility of reversing the catastrophic impacts of climate change. As such, partaking in activities that cause both physical and environmental damage may stem from an attitude of wilful ignorance that allows young people to feel momentary freedom from this burden. With a reputation as one of the most climate-conscious generations,

Gen Z is often held to high moral standards regarding social and environmental issues. These standards make very little allowance for complex reactions to climate change that may appear to older generations as apathy. Subsequently, young people are owed a greater deal of compassion and understanding from older generations for their reactions to this unimaginable catastrophe.

Young people of the 21st century appear to be both driving and abating the effects of climate change. Some of the world’s most passionate and radical anti-climate change organisations have been spearheaded by Gen Z – reflecting their climate-consciousness. Yet, paradoxically, young people are the biggest users of disposable vapes and are frequent patrons of fast fashion giants. It’s an easy conclusion to draw that these behaviours (in a time of rampant climate change) seem to reflect opposing ideologies at best and a lack of general empathy at worst. In an article for the online publication Refinery29, ‘Gen Z & the fast fashion paradox’, Fedora Abu describes young people as “environmentally engaged yet seduced by what’s new and ‘now’”.  

This attitude represents an oversimplification of the mental and ethical impacts of climate change on young people. Abu depicts Gen Z as a generation whose ethical and moral beliefs are easily corrupted by consumerism-driven desire. Many adults are quick to overlook the extreme mental load felt by Gen Z toward climate change and the emotional maturity that lends itself to this responsibility. Amongst young people, there has been a notable rise in feelings of eco-anxiety – described by the American Psychological Society as a “chronic fear of environmental doom”. Climate-related mental health issues manifest themselves through trauma, shock, substance abuse and depression.  

In an online article published by the University of Melbourne about the rise of climate anxiety amongst young people, recommendations to relieve negative emotions include partaking in sustainable consumption (recycling, picking up rubbish etc.) and becoming involved in environmental campaigns. While there is no doubt that sustainable consumption and activism are positive, they may not adequately alleviate the anxiety felt by some young people. Those who structure their lives around sustainability and those who indulge in unsustainable practices may seem like opposing forces; they are, in fact, two sides of the same highly anxious, existential coin – both equally valid reactions to a sense of disillusionment with 21st-century adulthood.  

Young people adopted their expectations of adulthood from the media they consumed as children. However, within a rapidly changing world, many feel a sense of disconnect with an experience of adulthood characterised by climate anxiety. Essentially, there’s a resounding sense that we haven’t gotten what was promised. As a child, my mother and I spent our bonding time in front of the TV – together she shared with me the television shows and movies that characterised her childhood and early adulthood. Before I was old enough to recognise it, the formulaic American sitcoms of the 90s and grand, romantic flicks of the 80s (often accompanied by a soundtrack of synth-heavy ballads) had begun to construct my worldview.  

Watched in retrospect and with the use of a fully developed brain, however, one aspect is glaringly missing from the portrayal of adulthood presented by the media that raised us – the omnipresent threat of climate change. While only linear time is to blame for the fact that media from the past can’t represent our current reality, there is a sense of cognitive dissonance amongst young people between the future we were raised to expect, and the way adulthood has unfolded before us. For young people, the rampant, mindless consumerism of the 80’s and 90’s appears like a neon-lit mirage. The increased uptake of sustainable practices by large corporations is a movement of the 21st century. As such, many young people have rarely made a purchase without considering the environment.  

For older generations, sustainability may provide feelings of empowerment and agency against the overwhelming monolith of climate change. However, sustainable living requires a significant amount of intentional thought against habitual, unsustainable habits built over generations. Within the domestic space, in particular, adopting sustainable approaches such as ‘zero waste’ living requires a significant mental load – the often invisible responsibilities of management and organisation. Whilst young people are rarely the organisers of large households, I believe a similar burden is felt towards sustainable consumerism.  

Sustainable consumerism is often denoted as ‘morally good’. Thus, any action or purchase that results in waste or promotes unsustainable production carries negative moral connotations.

Climate-based moral decision-making is largely all that young people have known. In some form, choosing not to consider the planet in every choice can provide young people with a prized commodity – freedom from pressure to act with morality.

For young people, living in wilful ignorance of climate change and damaging the planet (and their bodies) in the process is a form of catharsis and escapism. Drinking from plastic water bottles, smoking chemical-filled cigarettes and purchasing clothes mass-produced in sweatshops allows Gen Z to experience a pantomime of the careless, invincible youth that was promised.  

Viewed through a binary moral lens, older generations are quick to criticise young people as careless and apathetic. In reality, there’s an unshakable sense of dread amongst young people that a natural disaster will take our lives by the time we reach our parents’ age. In Thomas Grey’s poem ‘Ode on a distant prospect of Eton college’, he states “Where ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise”. In essence, if knowing something harmed you, would you be better off not knowing at all? If there’s one thing that Gen Z know, it’s that there is unavoidable harm in their future. If that is the case, and there’s nothing that can be done, may as well have a cigarette.  

 

Gen Z and eco-existentialism: A cigarette at the end of the world‘ by Layla Zak-Volpato is one of the Highly Commended essays in our Young Writers’ Competition. Find out more about the competition here.       

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The ethics of workplace drinks, when we’re collectively drinking less

There is no denying that alcohol is inextricably linked to Australia’s social DNA. Going to the pub with mates, drinking at a BBQ or picnic, at dinner parties, house parties, birthdays or gigs – all of these link “having a drink” with “having a good time” in our national consciousness.

A Roy Morgan research study in 2022 found that the majority (67.9%) of Australians had consumed alcohol in the last month, with the average Australian consuming nearly 10 litres of pure alcohol a year (2017-18 study).  

In fact, a 2021 survey named Australians the heaviest binge drinkers in the world, finding we would binge an average of 27 times a year, almost double the global average – although overall alcohol consumption rates have been dropping since the early 2000s. 

When it comes to work, alcohol is closely tied to socialising – Friday after work drinks, celebratory drinks to recognise a goal achieved, Christmas parties, launches, networking events; all of them invariably involve alcohol in some capacity. Some people might even say they can’t stomach a work social event unless alcohol is involved. 

In some cultures binging is even built into work culture – in China, heavy drinking after a deal has been sealed is a time-honoured ritual, where everyone involved has to let their guard down and form a “moral contract” bound by heavy drinking together. In Japan, nomikai, or drinking parties, are an integral part of workplace culture for socialising and bonding, and everyone is expected to take part. 

Alcohol certainly has its benefits as a social lubricant at work events, allowing people to bond together faster, but it also has its dark side – harassment after the lowering of inhibitions, saying something inappropriate to a colleague, potentially embarrassing yourself in front of your team or clients, even assault can follow heavy drinking with work mates. 

Having work social rituals based around the consumption of alcohol is also exclusionary for those who choose not to drink, whether because of physical or mental health reasons, religious or cultural reasons, or because they’ve quit or just don’t want to. People may feel pressured to drink in work social spaces, to be social, to network and keep up with the team. A 2019 survey by the UK’s Drinkaware found that more than half of workers surveyed would like there to be less pressure to drink at work events. 

And people are increasingly opting out of alcohol-fuelled leisure time, a trend led by the more risk-aware Gen Z. The 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that, in 2001, the people most likely to have consumed alcohol daily, used illicit drugs or smoked cigarettes were in their 20s. By 2019, that had changed to people in their 40s and 50s. The survey also found the number of people in their 20s who don’t drink at all increased from 9% to 22% between 2001 and 2019. 

The drinks industry has adapted, with sales of zero alcohol substitutes rising over 100% in the two years to 2022, but in many cases our workplaces have not. 

As more people are becoming ‘sober curious’, or trying to reduce their alcohol intake, it can make it awkward in the workplace when you decline an “al-desko” beer or to troop along to Friday after work drinks. Missing out on socialising with your colleagues can also be a barrier to making closer connections and friendships. 

So what responsibility do workplaces have to their employees to offer alcohol free options for socialising, while also respecting the rights and choices of employees who want to drink responsibly?

Employers are mandated ethically and legally to provide safe, inclusive workplaces, and this should include respecting people’s decision to either drink alcohol or not drink alcohol and still be able to participate socially with their workmates and colleagues.

Rather than banning alcohol at work, providing zero alcohol drink options and alcohol-free bonding activities are an easy way employers can foster an inclusive environment, while respecting individual choice. 

Just as we’ve seen the “smokers huddle” outside office buildings dwindle to near invisibility in the past ten years, I predict that we’ll soon see a marked increase in the availability of non-alcoholic options at work events and alternative socialising options that don’t come with any pressure, latent or otherwise, to imbibe. Which can only be a good thing for our livers and work-related hangxiety.

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Life and Shares

Life and Shares podcast

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Thinking about investing? Chances are, you’re already playing the game. This new podcast unpicks the share market so you can better understand how the system works.

Did you know that some trading apps use the same psychological tricks as gambling apps? That the big players in financial services can pay to get “privileged access” to the ASX?

Life and Shares is a podcast from The Ethics Centre about the share market. Even if you don’t actively invest, chances are that you are already connected to the share market; as a taxpayer in Australia, a significant amount of your superannuation is already being traded. 

In this four-part series, hosted by The Ethics Centre’s Cris Parker, we’ve assembled people from different industries to help you understand the rules of the game so you can make informed decisions. We’re looking beyond the jargon to unpack how the system works and what ethical issues you could – and should – consider if you decide to play. 

Some may tell you they can pick a winning share. This series unpicks the share market so that you can make decisions you’ll be proud of. 

Available to listen now on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.  

This podcast is presented by The Ethics Centre. Our work is made possible by donations including the generous support of Ecstra Foundation helping to build the financial wellbeing of Australians. This series follows the popular first season, Life and Debt

Life and Shares Podcast Trailer

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Whats inside the guide?

EPISODES

EPISODE ONE: PEELING BACK THE LABEL

Let’s break down the jargon: starting with investor classifications.

Did you know that your level of wealth impacts how you can invest in the share market? In this episode, we hear from RMIT Associate Professor Chris Berg who thinks it’s “deeply unethical” that retail investors (‘mum and dad’ investors) don’t have access to the kind of products that rich people do and so are shut out of some of the most lucrative and risky investments… but accountants say there’s a good reason for that.

We also learn about the murky areas of ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ investing and how it differs from ‘responsible’ investing. If an Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) is labelled sustainable, is it irresponsible for it to have a large holding in a fossil fuel company? Is ESG reporting the best way to judge which companies are good to invest in?

GUESTS: 

  • Chris Berg, Associate Professor at RMIT University and Director and Cofounder of the RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub 
  • Susheela Peres da Costa, Principal at The Stewardship Centre

Listen to Ep 1 on Apple or Spotify now.

EPISODE TWO: WHO'S RUNNING THE SHOW?

If video killed the radio star, have brokerage apps killed the stockbroker? What’s the role of robo-advisers? And how are algorithms shaping the marketplace? 

Did you know that the big players in financial services can pay to get “privileged access” to the ASX? We ask Paul Lajbcygier from the Monash Data Futures Institute, is that fair?

We also hear from UNSW Professor Gigi Foster who thinks greed and profit make the market go round – and that’s not a bad thing. But on the other hand, she acknowledges there’s a growing class of people who don’t work for their wages – they just move their investments around. 

GUESTS: 

      • Gigi Foster, Professor with the School of Economics at the University of New South Wales
      • Paul Lajbcygier, Computation Finance expert at the Monash Data Futures Institute

Listen to Ep 2 on Apple or Spotify now.

EPISODE THREE: IS TRADING GAMBLING?

For the first two months of COVID, nearly 5,000 Australians opened an online trading account… every day. Eighty percent of them lost money.

So, is trading gambling? We speak with a clinical psychologist who’s concerned about the lack of awareness and resources for people addicted to trading. We also speak with co-founder of the International Day Trading Academy Cameron Buchanan, who admits that while trading is gambling, he thinks there’s an essential difference.

GUESTS: 

  • Cameron Buchanan, Co-founder of the International Day Trading Academy
  • Anonymous Guest, Clinical Lead at a gambling treatment centre

Listen to Ep 3 on Apple or Spotify now.

EPISODE FOUR: THE POWER OF PERSUASION

Humans aren’t rational… and yet so much economic modelling assumes we are.  

In this episode, we look at a Canadian experiment that investigated the ‘gamification’ of investment apps… and how one minor tweak to the app saw people increase the number of trades by a whopping 40%.  

We meet behavioural finance specialists Angel Zhong from RMIT University and Ravi Dutta Powell from The Behavioural Insights Team, who explain how cognitive biases impact how we assess risk and make investment decisions. 

GUESTS:  

  • Angel Zhong, Associate Professor of Finance, RMIT University 
  • Ravi Dutta-Powell, Senior Advisor, The Behaviour Insights Team  

Listen to Ep 4 on Apple or Spotify now.


Moral injury

Each of us believes that, at our core, we are fundamentally ethical people. We always try to do the right thing. We have deeply held values and principles that we are not willing to compromise.  

But sometimes we are thrust into situations where there appears to be no ‘right answer’ – where the best we can hope for is to take the ‘least bad’ option or, worse still, where we are forced to act against what we believe is right.  

Moral injury is caused when we are compelled to act against what we believe is right in a high stakes situation.  

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The ethics of drug injecting rooms

Should we allow people to use illicit drugs if it means that we can reduce the harm they cause? Or is doing so just promoting bad behaviour?

Illicit drug use costs the Australian economy billions of dollars each year, not to mention the associated social and health costs that it imposes on individuals and communities. For the last several decades, the policy focus has been on reducing illicit drug use, including making it illegal to possess and consume many drugs. 

Yet Australia’s response to illicit drug use is becoming increasingly aligned with the approach called ‘harm reduction,’ which includes initiatives like supervised injecting rooms and drug checking services, like pill testing 

Harm reduction initiatives effectively suspend the illegality of drug possession in certain spaces to prioritise the safety and wellbeing of people who use drugs. Supervised injecting rooms allow people to bring in their illicit drugs, acquire clean injecting equipment and receive guidance from medical professionals. Similarly, pill testing creates a space for festival-goers to learn about the contents and potency of their drugs, tacitly accepting that they will be consumed. 

Harm reduction is best understood in contrast with an abstinence-based approach, which has the goal of ceasing drug use altogether. Harm reduction does not enforce abstinence, instead focusing on reducing the adverse events that can result from unsafe drug use such as overdose, death and disease. 

Yet there is a great deal of debate around the ethics of harm reduction, with some people seeing it as being the obvious way to minimise the impact of drug use and to help addicts battle dependence, while those who favour abstinence often consider it to be unethical in principle.

Much of the debate is muddied by the fact that those who embrace one ethical perspective often fail to understand the issue from the other perspective, resulting in both sides talking past each other. In order for us to make an informed and ethical choice about harm reduction, it’s important to understand both perspectives. 

The ethics of drug use

Deontology and consequentialism are two moral theories that inform the various views around drug use. Deontology focuses on what kinds of acts are right or wrong, judging them according to moral norms or whether they accord with things like duties and human rights.

Immanuel Kant famously argued that we should only act in ways that we would wish to become universal laws. Accordingly, if you think it’s okay to take drugs in one context, then you’re effectively endorsing drug use for everyone. So a deontologist might argue that people should not be allowed to use illicit drugs in supervised injecting rooms, because we would not want to allow drug use in all spaces. 

An abstinence-based approach embodies this reasoning in its focus on stopping illicit drug use through treatment and incarceration. It can also explain the concern that condoning drug use in certain spaces sends a bad message to the wider community, as argued by John Barilaro in the Sydney Morning Herald: 

“…it’d be your taxpayer dollars spent funding a pill-testing regime designed to give your loved ones and their friends the green light to take an illicit substance at a music festival, but not anywhere else. If we’re to tackle the scourge of drugs in our regional towns and cities, we need one consistent message.” 

However, deontology can also be inflexible when it comes to dealing with different circumstances or contexts. Abstinence-based approaches can apply the same norms to long-term drug uses as it does to teenagers who have not yet engaged in illicit drug use. With still high rates of morbidity and mortality for the former group, some may prefer an alternative approach that highlights this context and these consequences in its moral reasoning.  

Harms and benefits

Enter consequentialism, which judges good and bad in terms of the outcomes of our actions. Harm reduction is strongly informed by consequentialism in asserting that the safety and wellbeing of people who use drugs are of primary concern. Whether drug use should be allowed in a particular space is answered by whether things like death, overdose and disease are expected to increase or decrease as a result. This is why scientific evaluations play an important role in harm reduction advocacy. As Stephen Bright argued in The Conversation: 

“…safe injecting facilities around the world: ’have been found to reduce the number of fatal and non-fatal drug overdoses and the spread of blood borne viral infections (including HIV and hepatitis B and C) both among people who inject drugs and in the wider community.’”

This approach also considers other potential societal harms, such as public injections and improper disposal of needles, as well as burden on the health system, crime and satisfaction in the surrounding community.  

This focus on consequences can also lead to the moral endorsement of some counter-intuitive initiatives. Because a consequentialist perspective will look at a wide range of the outcomes associated with a program, including the cost and harms caused by criminalisation, such as policing and incarceration, it can also conclude that some dangerous drugs should be decriminalised or legalised, if doing so would reduce their overall harm.

While a useful way to begin thinking about Australia’s approach to drug use, there is of course nuance worth noting. A deontological abstinence-based approach assumes that establishing a drug-free society is even possible, which is highly contested by harm reduction advocates. Disagreement on this possibility seems to reflect intuitive beliefs about people and about drugs. This is perhaps part of why discussions surrounding harm reduction initiatives often become so polarised. Nevertheless, these two moral theories can help us begin to understand how people view quite different dimensions of drug treatment and policy as ethically important.  


The ethical dilemma of the 4-day work week

Ahead of an automation and artificial intelligence revolution, and a possible global recession, we are sizing up ways to ‘work smarter, not harder’. Could the 4-day work week be the key to helping us adapt and thrive in the future?

As the workforce plunged into a pandemic that upended our traditional work hours, workplaces and workloads, we received the collective opportunity to question the 9-5, Monday to Friday model that has driven the global economy for the past several decades.

Workers were astounded by what they’d gained back from working remotely and with more flexible hours. Not only did the care of elderly, sick or young people become easier from the home office, but also hours that were previously spent commuting shifted to more family and personal time. 

This change in where we work sparked further thought about how much time we spend working. In 2022, the largest and most successful trial of a four-day working week delivered impressive results. Some 92% of 61 UK companies who participated in a two-month trial of the shorter week declared they’d be sticking with the 100:80:100 model in what the 4 Day Week director Joe Ryle called a “major breakthrough moment” for the movement.  

Momentum Mental Health chief executive officer Debbie Bailey, who participated in the study, said her team had maintained productivity and increased output. But what had stirred her more deeply was a measurable “increase in work-life balance, happiness at work, sleep per night, and a reduction in stress” among staff. 

However, Bailey said, the shorter working week must remain viable for her bottom line, something she ensures through a tailor-made ‘Rules of Engagement’ in her team. “For example, if we don’t maintain 100 per cent outputs, an individual or the full team can be required to return to a 5-day week pattern,” she explained. 

Beyond staff satisfaction, a successful implementation of the 4-day week model could also boost the bottom line for businesses.

Reimagining a more ethical working environment, advocates say, can yield comprehensive social benefits, including balancing gender roles, elongated lifespans, increased employee well-being, improved staff recruitment and retention and a much-needed reduction in workers’ carbon footprint as Australia works towards net-zero by 2050. 

University of Queensland Business School’s associate professor Remi Ayoko says working parents with a young family will benefit the most from a modified work week, with far greater leisure time away from the keyboard offering more opportunity for travel and adventure further afield, as well as increased familial bonding and life experiences along the way.  

However, similar to remote work, the 4-day working week has not been without its criticisms. Workplace connectivity is one aspect that can fall by the wayside when implementing the model – a valuable culture-building part of work, according to the University of Auckland’s Helen Delaney and Loughborough University’s Catherine Casey. 

Some workers reported that “the urgency and pressure was causing “heightened stress levels,” leaving them in need of the additional day off to recover from work intensity. This raises the question of whether it is ethical for a workplace to demand a more robotic and less human-focussed performance.  

In November last year, Australian staff at several of Unilever’s household names, including Dove, Rexona, Surf, Omo, TRESemmé, Continental and Streets, trialed a 100:80:100 model in the workplace. Factory workers did not take part due to union agreements.  

To maintain productivity, Unilever staff were advised to cut “lesser value” activities during working hours, like superfluous meetings and the use of staff collaboration tool Microsoft Teams, in order to “free up time to work on items that matter most to the people we serve, externally and internally”. 

If eyebrows were raised by that instruction, they needed only look across the ditch at Unilever New Zealand, where an 18-month trial yielded impressive results. Some 80 staff took a third (34%) fewer sick days, stress levels fell by a third (33%), and issues with work-life balance tumbled by two-thirds (67%). An independent team from the University of Technology Sydney monitored the results. 

Keogh Consulting CEO Margit Mansfield told ABC Perth that she would advise business leaders considering the 4-day week to first assess the existing flexibility and autonomy arrangements in place – put simply, looking into where and when your staff actually want to work – to determine the most ethically advantageous way to shake things up. 

Mansfield says focussing on redesigning jobs to suit new working environments can be a far more positive experience than retrofitting old ones with new ways. It can mean changing “the whole ecosystem around whatever the reduced hours are, because it’s not just simply, well, ‘just be as productive in four days’, and ‘you’re on five if the job is so big that it just simply cannot be done’.” 

New modes of working, whether in shorter weeks or remote, are also seeing the workplace grappling with a trust revolution. On the one hand, the rise of project management software like Asana is helping managers monitor deliverables and workload in an open, transparent and ethical way, while on the other, controversial tracking software installed on work computers is causing many people, already concerned about their data privacy, to consider other workplaces. 

It is important to recognise that the relationship between employer and employee is not one-sided and the reciprocation of trust is essential for creating a work environment that fosters productivity, innovation and wellbeing.

While employees now anticipate flexibility to maintain a healthy work-life balance, employers also have expectations – one of which is that employees still contribute to the culture of the organisation. 

When employees are engaged and motivated they are more likely to contribute to the culture of the organisation which can inform the way the business interacts with society more broadly. Trust reciprocation is not just about meeting individual needs but also working together on a common purpose. By prioritising the well-being of their employees and empowering them to contribute to the culture of the organisation a virtuous cycle is being created. Whether this is a 4-day working week or a hybrid structure is for the employer and employee to explore. 

CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella says forming a new world working relationship based on trust between all parties can be far more powerful for a business than building parameters around workers. After all, “people come to work for other people, not because of some policy”.  


Australia’s paid parental leave reform is only one step in addressing gender-based disadvantage

Parental leave policies are designed to support and protect working parents. However, we need to exercise greater imagination when it comes to the roles of women, family and care if we are to promote greater social equity.

In October 2022, prime minister Anthony Albanese announced a major reform to Australia’s paid parental leave scheme, making it more flexible for parents and extending the period that it covers. Labor’s reforms are undoubtedly an improvement over the existing scheme, which has been insufficient to address gender-based disadvantage.

Labor’s new arrangement builds on the current Parental Leave Pay (PLP) scheme. This entitles a primary carer – usually the mother – to 18 weeks paid leave at the national minimum wage, along with any parental leave offered by their employer. It runs in parallel to the Dad and Partner Pay scheme, which offers “eligible working dads and partners” two weeks paid leave at the minimum wage. Recipients of this scheme are required to be employed and recipients of both need to be earning less than ~$156,000 annually.

Albanese’s announced expansion of the PLP will increase it to 26 weeks paid leave by 2026, which can be shared between carers if they wish. Labor claims that this will offer parents greater flexibility while retaining continuity with the existing scheme.

Labor’s new scheme is an improvement over the older arrangement, but is it enough to move society closer to the goal of social equity? To do so, we need to do more to reduce the marginalisation of women economically, in the home and in the workplace, and to expand our imagination when it comes to parenthood and caring responsibilities.

Uneven playing field

Gender-based disadvantage is a global occurrence. Currently, being a woman acts as a reliable determining factor of that person’s social, health and economic disadvantage throughout their life. Paid parental schemes are one type of governmental policy that can facilitate and encourage the structural reform necessary to address gender-based disadvantage. Certain parental leave policies can help reconfigure conceptions about parenting, family and work in ways that better align with a country’s goals and attitudes surrounding both gender equity and economic participation.

Paid parental leave schemes that provide adequate leave periods, pay rates, and encourage shared caring patterns across households, can fundamentally impact the degree to which one’s gender acts a significant determining factor of their opportunities and wellbeing across their lifetime.

The Parenthood, an Australian not-for-profit, emphasises that motherhood acts as a penalty against women, children and their families. This penalty is experienced acutely by women who have children and manifests as diminished health and economic security, reducing women’s social capacity to achieve shared gender equity goals. Their research highlights that countries that offer higher levels of maternity and paternity leave, such as Germany, in combination with access to affordable childcare results in higher lifetime earnings and work participation rates for women.

Australia’s existing PLP scheme, on the other hand, works to both create and foster conditions that reduce the capacity for women to achieve the same social and economic security as their male peers. It hugely limits women’s capacity to return to work, to remain at home, and to freely negotiate alternative patterns of care with their partners. This in combination with a growing casualised workforce who remain unable to access adequate employer support emphasises the need for extensive policy amendments if we hope to realise our goals of social equity.

Labour’s proposed expansion incrementally begins to better align the PLP with the goals set forth by organisations like The Parenthood.

Providing women and their families with more freedom to independently determine their work and social structures may mark the beginning of a positive move against gender-based disadvantage. However, the proposed expansion is not a cure-all for a society that remains wedded to particular conceptions of women, parenting, and labour more broadly.

The working rights of mothers

We can see how disadvantage goes beyond parental leave by looking at how mothers are treated in workplaces such as universities. Dr Talia Morag at the University of Wollongong advocates for the working rights of mothers employed within her university. Prior to Albanese’s announcement, Morag emphasised the cultural resistance, or rather a lack of imagination, when it came to merging the concept of motherhood with an academic career.

Class scheduling, travel funding and networking capacities are all important features of an academic career that require attention and reconfiguration if mothers, especially of infants and young children, are to be sufficiently included and afforded equal capacities to succeed in university settings.

Even under expanded PLP schemes, mothers who breastfeed, for example, face difficulty when returning to work if they remain unsupported and marginalised in those workplaces. As Morag emphasises, many casual or early-career academic staff are unentitled to receive government PLP or university funded parental leave.

Critically, the associations between being woman and being taken to be an impediment to one’s workplace is not an issue faced solely by those who become mothers.

As Morag remarks, “it does not matter if you are or are not going to be a mother, you will be labelled as a potential mother for most of your career. And that will come with expectations and discrimination.”

The gender-based disadvantage emergent from these cultural associations will remain if broader cultural change is not sought alongside expanded PLP schemes.

Expanding our imaginations as to how current notions of motherhood, family and caring patterns can look will require the combined efforts of expanded PLP schemes and the creation of more hospitable working environments for parents. Women may remain being seen as potential mothers and potential liabilities to places of work, however this liability may slowly begin to shift.

We historically have, and seemingly remain, committed to reproducing our species. This means we continue to produce little people who grow up to experience pleasure, pain, and everything in between. If we also see ourselves as committed to managing some of that pain, to expanding the opportunities these little people get, as well as reducing how gender unfairly determines opportunity on their behalf, we will require policies that assist parents to do so.

Affording families this chance benefits not only mothers, or parents, but also their children, their children’s children, and all others in our communities. Granting parents the capacity to choose who works where and when can help us, incrementally, along a long path to a world that is perhaps more dynamic and equitable than we can even begin to envision.


Donation? More like dump nation

In the desire to clean up our living and mental spaces, we need not create a costly mess for charitable organisations receiving our donations.

Several years ago when I was producing for radio, I found myself knee-deep in the topic of minimalism. I was fascinated by the concept: living with a minimal number of possessions, replacing rather than accumulating, being ‘timeless’ rather than at the mercy of trends. At the forefront of the movement were Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, aka The Minimalists, whom The New Yorker called ‘Sincere prophets of anti-consumerism’. They rose to fame with documentaries, a podcast and a best-selling book, all of which promoted this ‘minimalist lifestyle’.

A minimalist approach does not preclude you from purchasing the latest smartphone, it resists desiring that smartphone, which, like most on-trend technology, will either get superseded by a newer version within a year, or break the moment its two-year warranty has expired. (Remember your childhood TV that worked for 17 years?)

I interviewed Nicodemus and easily understood how his austere approach to housekeeping might have its appeal. What would it be like to not be weighed down by your possessions? To actually derive full use out of what you already owned? To simply not want the newest shiny thing?

At the heart of this approach is a mental philosophy that fuels a mindset, not just a way of life. Being a minimalist will mean you’re not part of the problem in what seems to be an ever-expanding consumerist wasteland. You’re better for the environment because you don’t accumulate. You’re not someone who, in the process of divesting yourself of unneeded possessions, overloads your local op shop because you have five different versions of a favourite item.

While the ability to not accumulate possessions may be harder to achieve for most people, as each new year rolls in with the proclamation of a ‘New Year, New Me’, we tend to become minimalists.

In a fever, we rule out bad habits and embrace healthy ones. Invariably, this involves some level of decluttering because we acknowledge that we are wasting money on things we don’t need.

And this is why it’s not uncommon to drive past a Vinnie’s in January and see half-opened bags of donations strewn across the pavement.

That ardent desire to strip away the baggage in our lives ends up becoming someone else’s problem when we dump donations, rather than engaging with charitable organisations and op-shops directly.

Unfortunately, this is a cumbersome, costly problem for the charitable organisations receiving these donations. Rather than an orderly, well-packed offering of useable items, charities are reporting the prevalence of irresponsible offloading of unusable items. As Tory Shepherd reported for The Guardian, “Australian charities are forking out millions of dollars to deal with donation ‘dumping’ at the same time that they are seeing rising demand for their services ‘as the cost-of-living crisis bites’”.

Not for the first time, we are seeing op shops plead with their local communities to not dump and run, leaving behind what is often rubbish, or items that the shop cannot accommodate, such as furniture. Following Covid lockdowns, we saw a similar phenomenon as people took stock of their lives and possessions—and left it to charities to take care of their unwanted items. The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) and Charitable Recycling Australia are pushing this message of responsible donating.

As a deeply consumerist society, we’re at the mercy of goods that are not built to last.

There is a need for donations; organisations like Vinnies are clearly welcoming of reusable, recyclable goods that can be repurposed. However, instead of owning the act of throwing something away, we might pass on the responsibility by giving it away and making it a charitable act. There are deeply-felt financial and practical impacts on these organisations when they have to clean up the mess of people who don’t take the time to sort through their possessions, or who are careless in how they deliver their donations. The resounding advice is that if it’s something you’d give to a friend, it’s suitable for a donation.

Not everyone can afford goods made of recyclable or sustainable material. But we can try to create a new way forward. We can reconsider our approach to ownership and divestment; buy what we need and try to purchase higher quality, sustainable goods whenever possible. We can also appeal to businesses to enact more sustainable practices. We can lobby local councils and government.

In the meantime, while it’s a positive that we don’t want to just throw things out, it does not take much to do a stocktake before offering up donations: is what am I giving away something I would give to someone I care about? Is it in working order? For large items, check with your op shop or organisation before delivering them. Don’t leave items in front of a closed shopfront. Don’t treat charities like a garbage dump.

There is tidying a la Marie Kondo but then there is medically-reviewed physical decluttering that research suggests is good for our mental health. Even digital decluttering can have a positive impact on our productivity. But it’s worth considering, when we divest ourselves of unwanted goods, whether we are making sustainable donations or trashing items simply to upgrade.

If we can accept that decluttering is good for us, does that not also suggest that having cleaner spaces with fewer possessions is a better way to live? Perhaps a more worthy and sustainable goal is to take some cues from the minimalist mindset. I’m all for annual purges but even better would be to not need to declutter in the first place.