Smart casual


Australia’s workforce may be in a process of progressive casualisation, but you wouldn’t know it from the scant offerings of my local newspaper. ‘Casual work available’ is a decidedly slim section of the classifieds. And the great majority of positions therein are to distribute the newspaper itself, headed by the statement ‘Walk and be paid’, followed by an optimistically placed exclamation mark in testament to an editor’s mistaken belief that the reader will be incredulous at the attractiveness of such an offer. In short, it is far easier to find casual sex than casual employment in this world, if the classifieds of a local newspaper are anything to go by.

Australia currently has the second largest casual workforce in the world (Spain is the titleholder), with approximately 27.6 per cent of paid workers accounted for by casual employees. What is of more significance, however, is the increase of casual positions being created as a percentage of total new jobs created. In the period from 1988–98, 69.9 per cent of net jobs created were casual positions, though this has slowed in the last five years to approximately 34 per cent.

The obvious problem with this is that casual working conditions are being thrust upon people who would undoubtedly otherwise prefer a more secure, regulated standard of employment. Although the majority of casuals are still employed on a part-time basis, a considerable 13.8 per cent of all full-time workers are casuals.

That’s 13.8 per cent of the Australian full-time workforce with little or no entitlements to superannuation, annual, parental, long-service or sick leave, and little or no industrial protection, whilst still being subjected to the same working hours and conditions, and often performing the same duties, of regular full-timers.

I lost my last summer to full-time employment, spending six days a week selling furniture at a store in Bankstown. The experience now seems like a daze. I remember entering November and emerging four months later with a heavier wallet and a head full of the varieties of Jarrah table lengths. I wasn’t ready, though, and vowed to pursue casual work until in my chosen profession.

Casual employment is ideal for Uni students. The hours are suitably irregular, the wages matter more than benefits at such an age, and the surly management keeps the hubris in check. It bears pointing out that Uni students are, by and large, insufferable, and the churlish treatment they receive at the hands of their seniors can only be good for them. Introducing them to a world where ‘skilled’ labour doesn’t just mean holding a degree is a lesson worth learning, I’ll never forget the first ‘you-may-know-the-Cold-War-but-let’s-see-you-sell-a-$1000-umbrella’ look I got from my manager.

I’m lucky in that I don’t really need the work that much. I will be a casual in the sense that the role was intended, someone who doesn’t want full-time nine-to-five work, but work that can be fitted around study, other employment and rest. I’m nineteen, I don’t really need sick leave or holiday pay or long-service leave. Casual employment was created for people like me.

The sad reality of casual employment is that in its current form it is often being misused. Whilst it is, no doubt, intended to provide more flexible working conditions at the expense of benefits which aren’t really needed by the employee (like Uni students), its common current use by employers is to build a workforce of employees who can be inexpensively retrenched should the perceived financial need arise.

Moreover, one of the untold realities of casual employment is that, on the whole, casual workers are not treated particularly well. For all the talk of flexible hours, the ‘flexing’ is still largely done by the employers, with employees having to fit around and incorporate themselves into an imposed schedule. A worker can be at the beck-and-call of an employer, being called in to work at any and all hours. Future planning is made practically impossible as a casual must accept that they may be required to work at any time on any day. And if they can’t do it, someone else will be found who will. Due to the absence of severance pay, the casual has no bargaining power; they can be retrenched and replaced without hesitation.

Naturally, because of the irregularity of the casuals’ hours, a penalty rate (typically between 18 and 30 per cent) is built into the rate of pay. However, this still amounts to cheaper labour because of the absence of non-wage benefits such as sick leave. Also, there can be little doubt that the vast majority of full-time casuals would trade their extra few dollars an hour for the peace of mind that comes from knowing they’ll still have a job tomorrow.

Whilst regular casual employment has its merits for both employees and employers, there is no symbiosis to full-time casual employment: it benefits employers alone. Employers are given a flexible, dispensable and ultimately inexpensive worker, whilst the employee is left with no benefits, no job security and little likelihood of there ever being so.

Unsurprisingly, with its pro-business economic stance, the Howard government has seen a 40 per cent increase in full-time casual employment. And whilst it has played its part in the economic surge Australia is now apparently experiencing, it is time to question whether economic rationalism should always be allowed to triumph over compassionate governance.

I walk into the video store and am introduced to the affable Chris. He shows me into his office and we chat amiably before he outlines what will be expected of a casual there. I will have to work four shifts a week. I will work afternoon/evening shifts, most likely from 2–11pm. I will work these on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. I may have to work on Christmas. I may have to work on New Years Eve. I may, in fact, be required to work on any, if not all, public holidays.

I think quietly for a moment before thanking Chris for his time and exiting. I’m young. I’m studying. I don’t really need this that much. And I pity the person who does.

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