31 Mar 2010

It's Time To Take Casual Labour Seriously

By Ava Hubble
As politicians start to kick around industrial relations policies, Ava Hubble wonders why they're not talking about the plight of Australia's growing casual workforce
Scaremongering about the return of WorkChoices has commenced. When the national secretary of the Australian Workers' Union, Paul Howes, recently addressed the National Press Club he said that "Tony Abbott dreams of returning to the WorkChoices era."

But Howes didn't say a word about the increasing casualisation of the Australian workforce — nor did any of the journalists who questioned him after his speech. And Kevin Rudd and Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Julia Gillard don't seem to be giving the plight of casuals much attention either.

Yet casuals are worse off than anyone employed under WorkChoices. For starters, most casuals have few, if any, rights or benefits to trade. They are not entitled to paid sick or holiday leave, or to paid public holidays — let alone paid maternity leave. They can be legally dismissed at five minutes notice unless they have worked continuously for the same employer for the previous six months (12 months in the case of small businesses).

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures released in August 2008 reveal that one in every four of Australia's 9.3 million workers is employed on a casual basis, that is: "24 per cent (2.1 million) of employees did not have paid leave entitlements (a proxy measure for casual employment)".

Of these, 56 per cent were women, 22 per cent were aged between 15 and 19 years, and more than half (57 per cent) were aged under 35. Almost three quarters of the casual workers recorded by the ABS were part-time employees and the majority of them worked in the sales, retail and hospitality sectors, or as labourers. Most earn between $17 and $22 an hour, ABS staff informed newmatilda.com.

It's notable that a further 7 per cent of Australian workers are classified by the ABS as contractors or OMIEs (Owner Managers of Incorporated Enterprises). OMIEs include workers in the rag trade and construction sector who undertake to complete an assignment for a pre-arranged hourly rate or lump sum.

ACTU president Sharan Burrow told newmatilda.com that "more and more people are feeling insecure about their job and their income. Today, one in four Australian workers is a casual employee, which means they have no access to paid leave, little access to workplace training, diminished career opportunities and job security."

Many casuals live in fear of summary dismissal without pay. It can be very difficult to find alternative work at short notice. And it's become difficult to get even the most menial casual job without references — and most employers want to see references from an applicant's most recent employer.

The deregulation of Australia's labour laws by the Hawke government was regarded by many as overdue. It followed complaints that excessive penalty rates, long service leave, meal allowances and the introduction of paid maternity leave were making it hard for many businesses, particularly small businesses, to turn a profit.

And in the wake of the 1987 stock market crash, most employers, including public sector employers and the big banks took advantage of deregulation to replace permanent clerical staff with casuals. The new rules enabled employers to engage casuals for unbroken shifts of up to five hours. In other words, without granting them a tea or meal break. It became common for employers to avoid paying overtime by rotating their casuals. Deregulation also enabled employers to instantly dismiss any casual who proved unsatisfactory. Employers found that as a result of rising unemployment and under-employment, unsatisfactory staff could be very quickly replaced with another agency temp.

The Rudd Government's stimulus package is credited with Australia's emergence, comparatively unscathed, from the global economic meltdown. Yet as Burrow points out, the recovery has also been at the expense of Australia's workforce — which includes those working hard to try to find a job.

"WorkChoices and other moves to deregulate the job market saw employers gain more power and flexibility at the expense of workers' job security. The recent economic downturn saw a further shift from permanent employment to casual labour, particularly for minimum wage earners. This was accompanied by cuts to hours and fewer shifts for casual workers."

Burrow reports an increase during the past year in the number of casual and part-time workers seeking more hours of employment in order to maintain mortgage payments and other basic living costs.

The ACTU has also found that unpaid overtime undertaken by permanent staff and casuals has increased to an estimated 2 billion hours a year. "The pressure on workers to do more for less worsened under the former Coalition Government and WorkChoices," Burrow said. "It has increased again since the onset of the economic downturn, with many workers afraid or uncertain about their future putting in unpaid overtime to keep their job."

"As Australia recovers from the GFC we need to focus on delivering more secure jobs and incomes for all working Australians," Burrow told newmatilda.com. Yet even she doesn't seem to expect things to improve until the return of the boom times — especially since many big Australian corporations, including Telstra and Qantas, are exporting jobs. In any event, it seems unlikely that life for most local "temps" will significantly improve unless the Government takes steps to protect these workers.

The ACTU is lobbying for better protection for casual workers. Burrow identifies reducing the incidence of casual work as a priority, arguing that contractors should have the same rights as standard employees. She says, "Unions would like to see the award system provide a right for long term casual workers to convert to permanent employment if they choose. Unions will also campaign and bargain to achieve the same pay and conditions for labour hire workers and contractors."

In the meantime thousands of casuals will continue to worry about whether they will be rostered to work tomorrow or next week.

Many of these workers have not had a restorative holiday in years. This winter, in order to meet their own and their families' basic needs, many will turn up for work ill. Casuals dread public holidays since they mean an enforced day off — and the loss of a day's pay. Many casuals can't even afford to take a day off to attend a funeral. Those who need two and even three casual jobs to survive have to drastically cut the time they spend with their families. The consequences for families can be heartbreaking and the social cost to the nation of unsupervised "latch key" children is immense.

So the next time politicians start scaremongering about WorkChoices, perhaps the media need to remind them of the plight of Australia's growing army of disenfranchised, no-rights-at-all casuals.

Log in or register to post comments

Discuss this article

To control your subscriptions to discussions you participate in go to your Account Settings preferences and click the Subscriptions tab.

Enter your comments here

David Grayling
Posted Thursday, April 1, 2010 - 15:18

An excellent article which needs broad exposure. The winners out of the 'casual phenomenon' in Australia's workforce are the employers! As usual.

Perhaps soon we'll have women and children down the mines again!

Posted Thursday, April 1, 2010 - 16:48

There's nothing inherently wrong with casual work. "Better protection" for casual workers will not fix the real problems - the dehumanisation of the workforce and the constant efficiency/productivity one-upmanship game. The excuse that "everyone else is doing it too" seems to be the justification for the deterioration of the work environment. Universities are a case in point here. Compare the number of casual teaching staff at universities today to ten and even twenty years ago.

Bad employers don't care about morale or employee welfare and palm off the effects of a horrible work environment onto the state in the form of extra demand for mental and physical health services. This problem is not just confined to employers of casuals. When will it finally click that treating people like crap is not a sustainable business practice?

More legislation is not a viable fix without a cultural change toward responsible employment practices. And that is a big ask.

Posted Thursday, April 1, 2010 - 18:17

All good points Ava, and I'd reinforce your point about "contractors". While casual "employees" are pretty hard done-by, they do have access to the industrial legal system and workers' comp.

Contractors don't even have this. Any financial disputes have to be settled as common-law contracts – which, in practical terms, makes them unenforceable.

It astounds me that most of what passes for 'public debate' about employment law revolves around big business in traditional industries with full-time permanent employees. It ignores the huge numbers working as casuals, freelancers, contractors etc – many for small business which is similarly ignored or glossed-over most of the time.

Ms_prue's points are also dead-on. Companies spout the (true) mantra that their staff are their greatest asset, then engage in practices that dehumanise, demoralise and insult them from before they're even hired (run the gauntlet of "employment agencies" lately, anyone?). Apart from anything else, this is just dumb, bad business.

There is plenty of data to show that a satisfied employee – one who's treated with respect and clarity – whether casual or full time – will work harder and more effectively, with less absenteeism and lower staff turnover. The attitude ms_prue describes isn't "good business". It's pursued by people who think being "businesslike" means being an arsehole. In spite of abundant evidence that arseholes can "succeed" in business, it's not a pre-requisite. And, if employees simply decline to tolerate arseholery, it will become an outright liability.

Posted Friday, April 2, 2010 - 21:13

Unless casuals are seen as voters, nothing will change.

Let me tell you what's worse than casual work: delivering junk mail! Try doing that for a couple of cents per item...

Posted Tuesday, April 6, 2010 - 15:06

Great article, and as ms_prue points out, an insidious problem that affects not only the unskilled end of the market. As a casual worker at a large tertiary education I was recently shocked to discover that under the operative enterprise bargaining agreement, bashed out over mass redundancies and strikes late last year, 'casual' employees do not count as 'employees' for the purposes of an agreement that new employment opportunities should first be opened to current or recent employees of the university. Given that over the last decade, academic staff at universities are increasingly pushed into sessional and casual agreements, I was floored that even the NTEU seemed to perpetuate the prejudice against employees on casual agreements. Lucky I've already accepted that home ownership is out of the question due the inflated housing market, otherwise I'd be petrified about the lack of job security! Small mercies.

Posted Sunday, February 13, 2011 - 17:13


Thanks for this fascinating if depressing article. It made me think of the situation a friend faces. She is a casual employee who has been working for the same employer for a long time (ten years) and without any warning has had her hours capped so that what was full-time work is now very definitely part-time. Does she have any come-back?

The reason given for the reduced hours has nothing to do with her work or even with a reduction in the amount of work that exists—she has been told that she is indeed "a valued member of the company"! It's about the company's need to improve their profits.

If anyone can point me to a website or an organisation that might help, I'd be most grateful. She doesn't belong to a union.