Finance Work Brendan O’Connor: time to put an end to insecure work

Brendan O’Connor: time to put an end to insecure work

insecure work
Casual workers are being increasingly exploited. Photo: Getty
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A search for a secure, permanent job is paradoxical for many Australians – essential but elusive.

In 2017, job security is an inescapable worry for too many people.

The prevalence of job insecurity combined with record low wages growth is a lethal combination for too many households. People are too often finding themselves in either casual, fixed term contracts, seasonal work, contracting or labour hire.

That’s why last week’s ruling by the Fair Work Commission to put a casual conversion clause in modern Awards, enabling casual employees engaged in regular patterns of work to request permanent positions after 12 months, is a welcome step in the right direction. But it is only a start.

In its ruling the Fair Work Commission confirmed both that the use of casual employment provisions in awards is increasing and that long term casual employment hurts workers:

“In our view, the disadvantages of long term casual employment for employees far outweigh the advantages to be gained by employers who wish to persist in using casual employment as a vehicle for virtual permanent employment, whatever their reason for doing so may be.”

The absence of a stable income can make it impossible to pay off a mortgage, or even to apply for a mortgage or rental property in the first place. It can mean real difficulty in paying the bills, while leaving workers without access to sick leave or annual leave – a condition most people in the workforce once took for granted.

As the Fair Work Commission points out, 59 per cent of casuals are in the 25-64 year old age group. Data from the ABS this year shows that since August 2012, the number of casual workers and independent contractors has risen by 110,000 and 51,300 respectively. This has coincided with 113,000 less workers getting full leave entitlements.

More and more, the oxymoronic term “permanent casual” is being used by employers to describe their employees.

While the ability to use casual work is an important component of the labour market, it has been increasingly exploited. Workers should not be categorised as “casual” just because their employer tells them they are.

That is why Labor committed at the last election to examine the definition of “casual” work and to set a clearer test for determining when a worker is “casual”.

The notion of “flexible” work is on the rise. This is fine if that is what you choose. But what we are increasingly seeing is under-employment – that is, people who want more work but cannot find it – at record highs. There are more than one million of our fellow Australians in this position right now.

University of Melbourne Professor of Economics Jeff Borland notes in his paper Part-time work in Australia: A second look, that between 1986 and 2016 (August) the percentage of employment in Australia accounted for by part-time work increased from 18.9 to 31.6 per cent.

This is one of the highest part-time rates of any developed country. Further, not all part-time workers are happy with their lot – around one-third say they want more hours.

It’s not just about earning more money, either. The OECD and World Health Organisation have found that insecure work has both short term and long term negative impacts on workers safety and health through uncertainty and anxiety.

Ultimately, insecure work means less pay and fewer rights and entitlements leading to stress and in some cases exploitation.

It’s a pretty grim picture for the future of employment – particularly where Australia’s new reality under the Abbott-Turnbull Liberal government is that inequality is on the rise and the middle class is being squeezed.

It’s time to take a stand against insecure work, which is a race to the bottom.

Over the past four years, the Coalition government has embraced an easy to hire, easy to fire society, which is undermining job security and income distribution

There is no silver bullet, but stopping sham contracting, regulating labour hire, stamping out misuse of temporary workers, increasing penalties for serious worker exploitation, reining in the application of casual workers and prosecuting employers for phoenixing are some of the policies Labor has canvassed.

This can be directly contrasted to the Liberal government’s policies to give tax cuts to big companies, support cuts to penalty rates, and wage a war against unions.

Decent wages and job security should be non-negotiable and Australians should go to work with purpose in exchange for a decent life.

Full employment – where every Australian who can work is able to work to their full capacity – shouldn’t be an impossible aspiration.

We must protect what we have fought so hard to achieve.

Labor will be making more announcements to add to the policy responses we already committed to well before the next election.

Brendan O’Connor is the Shadow Minister for Employment.

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