A Roy Morgan survey released last week attracted little media attention or challenge. Yet it reported that during the last quarter of 2011, Australia recorded the highest unemployment and underemployment figures on record.

According to Morgan’s researchers, 16.8% of the workforce (2.01 million people) were unemployed or underemployed between October and December last year.

The survey reports that 8.6% of the workforce was unemployed during that period. That figure is significantly at odds with the recently released Australian Bureau of Statistics’ national unemployment rate of 5.3%. The Morgan survey also found that underemployment in most states was higher than recent government estimates.

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It reported that unemployment ranged from 10.4% in Tasmania to 8% in South Australia. Underemployment around the nation ranged from 9.3% in Queensland to 6% in Western Australia.

When Crikey asked the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) to comment on the report, its acting CEO Tessa Boyd-Caine emailed this response:

“Data on underemployment alongside data on unemployment are an important part of understanding what’s really happening for people who are looking for work.

“While there may be some differences in the way people who are unemployed or underemployed are counted, the official (unemployment) figure of 5.3% masks the lived experience of the many people in Australia who are looking for work and unable to obtain the amount or security of employment that they need to support themselves.

“The evidence of particularly high levels of young people and women facing unemployment and underemployment highlights the importance of policies that would support and sustain education and employment opportunities for young people, not just policies that reduce access to much-needed income support, especially when the basic rate of that income support is so inadequate (roughly $33 per day).”

Underemployment and insecure employment in Australia were matters raised by ACTU president Ged Kearney during her speech last September to the National Press Club. She advised that almost half of all Australian workers are now engaged as casuals or on fixed-term contracts or some other form of non-permanent employment. These workers include government and private sector executives as well as the comparatively low-paid retail, call centre and hospitality industry casuals who can be legally laid off without compensation at five minutes notice.

Paid holidays and public holidays are, increasingly a thing of the past for many Australians. Kearney noted that some primary school teachers do not now get paid during term breaks.

She went on to point to the effects of  underemployment and “precarious” employment on Australian workers and their families. The Morgan survey indicates suggests that the situation is deteriorating.