A Casual Approach To Fair Work


There is a fox in the henhouse and its name is the Australian Industry Group (AIG).

It bared its fangs recently over workforce flexibility. AIG want Fair Work Australia to allow employers to casualise their workforces.

Over the next 20 years, almost half of the 1.3 million mature age workers currently in full-time work will move, if employers allow, to part-time work. That's good news. Enterprise Bargaining Agreements will change by demand as employers realise that experience provides a competitive advantage.

But we are also witnessing an extraordinarily high proportion of women, young people, older people and migrants working as casuals.

There has been an explosion of independent contractors (such as cleaners) who now make up about 10 per cent of workers. The number of people in non-permanent jobs is about 40 per cent of the workforce — that's four million Australians.

The ABS defines a casual job as a job without paid leave entitlements, but the essence of a casual job is that the worker is entirely expendable on an hour-to-hour, week-to-week, year-to-year basis.

If you're 18 or 55 and struggling to get a job, does it matter if there is no job security, no holiday pay, no carers' leave or no sick pay? Does it matter if doing a job well plays no part in whether you will be hired again?

Recently the chief executive of AIG, Innes Willox, claimed unions had too much say in the review of the Fair Work Act — the body of legislation that protects both workers and employers rights.

Willox warned that the Federal Government's "pro-union approach" could result in more company closures and jobs being sent offshore where, for example, Thai auto-workers are paid $1.20 per hour. The "offshoring" of jobs has got nothing to do with domestic policy settings and Willox knows this.

There is a big distinction between flexibility of workers and flexibility for workers. Some companies treat staff like a commodity. But labour can't be divorced from a worker; workers come attached to the labour they supply. Casuals don't work to a set roster — they work at the beck and call of the employer.

Guy Standing, in his book The Precariat, said that the working poor consists of three main groups — those falling out of working-class jobs and communities, those who accept insecurity because they have never had any, and those who are educated and are experiencing status frustration.

This is the dynamic AIG wants — to impose flexibility on older and younger workers. It dictates, "These are the jobs we have, if you don't like the pay or conditions, good bye".

The hourly rate for casuals in the retail, hospitality, and call centre and aged-care sectors is about $17.20. This includes a loading in lieu of holiday pay, sick pay and long-service leave.

The increased prominence of casuals helps to explain the very high rates of underemployment. Back in February 2012, more than 900,000 Australian workers had insufficient work (531,500 women and 384,800 men) comprising around 8 per cent of the workforce (in addition to an unemployment rate of around 5 per cent).

Factory and call centre casuals do not know from one day to the next whether they will be rostered for the next shift. Most banks will not lend to customers who don't have secure jobs. Casuals generally have miniscule superannuation balances.

It is therefore curious that AIG, which currently manages the $15.6 million Corporate Champions project for the government, should beat the drum for casualisation.

The Corporate Champions project appeals to both employers and employees to consider changing their Enterprise Bargaining Agreements so that older workers can be retained and where possible, work part time. It recognises older workers are a capital asset, not a liability.

It is unusual that valuable Australian Government contracts, which deal with industrial relations and productivity, are placed with an organisation whose expressed ideal for workforce change is antithetical to the Government's desired outcome.

Surely there are business groups which better display the co-operative spirit of economic reform, rather than the old foxes who wait impatiently for a change of Government.

Many older workers and job seekers will find, like their grandchildren, that relying on casual work is chaotic and alienating.

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