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Laid back or laid off? Byron’s underemployment woes

Byron Shire has one of the highest rates of part-time work in the state. Image www.masemp.com

Byron Shire has one of the highest rates of part-time work in the state. Image www.masemp.com

Paul Bibby

When Cris quit her well-paying film and television industry job to move to Byron in the early 2000s, she knew finding regular work would be a challenge.

But the talented young woman didn’t expect that, more than a decade on, she’d be facing the prospect of having to leave town due to a lack of consistent work.

For years, Cris rode the seasonal roller coaster of Byron’s tourist-driven job market – working over summer, but struggling to survive for the rest of the year.

Now she’s contemplating greener employment pastures.

‘I love living here – this is my home,’ she says.

‘But if I can’t generate the income to pay the rent then it’s a no brainer.’

Familiar tale

Cris’s story is all too familiar for many in Byron Shire.

Thousands of locals are engaged in a nearly constant battle to generate enough regular income in a job market which is dominated by part-time jobs in tourism, hospitality and retail.

New figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that Byron Shire has the lowest proportion of people working full-time of any local government area in NSW.

Just 42 per cent of working locals are hitting the 38-hour mark, well below the state average of 59.2 per cent.

At the same time, we have one of the highest rates of part-time work in the state, with 45 per cent of employed people in this category.

And more than a third of these part-timers are working just 15 hours a week or less – barely enough to pay the rent given the region’s ongoing affordability crisis.

A major Sydney newspaper recently declared that the small number of Byron residents working 40 hours or more each week was simply a reflection of our ‘laid back attitude’ to work.

And it’s true that there has long been a pilgrimage of people moving here with the intention to ‘work less and surf more’.

Tony Davies, the chief executive of local community services organisation, Social Futures, believes the figures include a significant number of these ‘sea and tree changers’.

‘You’ve got people selling their house in Sydney for $2m and buying a house in Mullumbimby for $800,000 and living on the leftovers supplemented by a small amount of work,’ Mr Davies says.

‘There’s also an older demographic in parts of Byron – people who are retired or semi-retired.’

But as Mr Davies acknowledges, it’s not all pina coladas and organic bananas.

Working poor

A significant proportion of Byron residents are struggling to get enough regular work to consistently pay the rent and keep food on the table.

The manager of the Mullumbimby & District Neighbourhood Centre, Julie Williams says many of the people making use of the centre’s emergency relief programs are employed part-time.

‘There is an assumption that people who access emergency relief are all unemployed,’ Ms Williams says.

‘But a very large percentage of the people seeking assistance are working between 12 and 20 hours a week.’

The median weekly income in Byron for families and individuals is about 30 per cent below that for the rest of NSW, according to the ABS figures.

‘One of the things that concerns me is the perception that Byron is an affluent community, when there are really significant, high levels of disadvantage,’ Ms Williams says.

‘It cuts across all demographics – it’s not just young men or older women or single mothers. And it’s not just the unemployed.’  

New jobs needed

Jane Laverty, the head of the local chapter of the NSW Business Chamber says underemployment is a ‘massive issue’ in Byron and the Northern Rivers more generally.

She believes the answer is more ‘export jobs’.

‘We need businesses to set up here and produce products which they then export out of the local area,’ she says.

‘It means you’ve got more consistent demand for employment and there’s money flowing consistently into the local economy.’

She says that to encourage this type of investment, the region needs to develop its ‘third world infrastructure’ and improve training opportunities.

Chef shortages

Yet Byron is definitely not suffering from a shortage of people with qualifications.

The ABS figures show that nearly a quarter of all locals over the age of 15 have at least a Bachelor degree, and a further 26 per cent of locals have some other tertiary qualification.

Yet, despite the qualified people who need work, some employers are struggling to find the staff they need.

The most glaring example is the current shortage of experienced, qualified chefs.

Ingrid Johansen, the business relationships manager at local recruitment company ETC, says local employers are struggling to find and retain chefs.

‘I think people going into the industry need to have some skills to survive and need to know before they start that they will be required to work weekends and split shifts. It’s not going to be like Master Chef,’ Ms Johansen says. 

However, Mr Davies says there are a few flickers of light on the horizon.

‘Thanks to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, disability services is becoming a major employer,’ he says.

‘Regional NSW alone will need 20,000 new workers under the scheme,’ he said.

A growing number of locals are also bypassing the limitations of Byron’s job market by selling their products and peddling their skills online.

‘The people of this region are creative and resourceful and they’re finding innovative ways of making a living, especially as connectivity [via the internet] increases,’ Mr Davies says.

Cris is among those who want to jump off the seasonal jobs merry-go-round by starting her own business.

‘I have always put my heart and soul into my work and would definitely do so if I was running my own business,’ she says. ‘It would be great to earn enough so that I can stay here and maybe even start putting a little bit away.’


3 responses to “Laid back or laid off? Byron’s underemployment woes”

  1. Mary Grant says:

    Do you think this is not happening elsewhere and maybe EVERYWHERE in Alaska eh eh I mean AUSTRALIA!

    I do think that on a National level. The POWERS that control the UNIVERSE must govern Australia.

    How else does this shit happen to people who just want to enjoy their lives without the hassle.

    What does Mal T know about “how to pay the rent” and “how to feed yourself and your family” on a bedrock budget???

    I guess that the next GOV will make things stay EXACTLY THE SAME AS DAYLIGHT SAVINGS – NOTE – EVERY YEAR SINCE ………….

  2. Paula Cordeiro says:

    I believe that our residents are a lot more active members of society than other Shires. Everyone wants to work and make an honest living. I learnt this by working closely with our local Marketeers for almost 20 years.

    I think that our local Mayor changed and opened many opportunities for new business, that wouldn’t have a chance to strive anywhere else.

    There are many programs in place to support our local community under financial hardship in our Shire.

    It’s not fair however to divert the focus of some of the real issues surrounding unemployment and the inability of a class of people to become independent from social security support.

    Some of these issues are beyond our local industry’s control. Corporate greed, is our worst local Dragon. Who can tame this Dragon down?
    – maybe not our General Manager….

    We need to continue to support our local Markets. But especially “the sole proprietor” business. Not to change forcefully rules and regulations that are obviously not compatible or realistic to sole proprietor entrepreneurs.

    Centrelink business partners, charge local sole proprietor business under jobseeker contracts for networking workshop opportunities. I honestly can’t understand why.

    Markets on Council land pay for public liability insurance for the lease of the land, but in our Shire, our sole proprietor traders, under a jobseeker contract, is still forced to pay for personal public liability insurance. These are harsh and unfair rules of trade.

    What I’m trying to establish here is that maybe there are basic costs on manufacturing that could be better addressed, if the labyrinth of rules and regulations applied to small businesses were different for sole proprietor entrepreneurs living under a pension of some sort.

    If we look back in to the North American trade history, we will find that because their government support of Marketeers, and sole proprietor business, their economy blossomed.

    The end of Feudalism in Europe also had roots on small sole proprietor entrepreneurs.

    In several developing countries, there are women programs with capital landing, that successfully supports sole proprietor business entrepreneurs.

    I believe that the idea of exporting locally made products is clever, but certainly not quite happening to the huge number of Marketeers in the Shire who could truly turn our economy around.

    Maybe we need more research into programs that could bring further strength to our local markets. A sustainable affordable and fair trade hub perhaps.

  3. Robyn says:

    As you didn’t post my last comment I can only assume that your paper is biast against the fact that some people don’t care to have jobs generated and are prepared to sacrifice future employment and businesses.
    The example given before was that od the food hub in Bangalow. They shut it down and have to acknowledge that it is because of the failure to expand businesses they will leave the Shire.

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