In the past few decades, there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of Australian employees depending on casual and contract work to pay their bills.
Such is the spike that almost a quarter of all employees – a whopping 2.2 million Australians – are employed casually, according to the 2012 Independent Inquiry into Insecure Work.
That’s about one-fifth of all Australian workers, and when fixed-term contractors and part-time employees are included, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) estimates that about 40 per cent of all jobs are insecure.
Some say the part-time and casual work system has been abused by employers wanting to save a buck. Others point to massive changes in the economy, as Australia has shifted away from key employment areas such as manufacturing and agriculture to more of an information economy.
Victoria Sheen, a research associate at Monash University, told The New Daily late last year that changes like this can unsettle perceptions of job stability, and force a “constant need to up-skill”.
As stable jobs become harder to find, competition will increase, and people may be forced to become more entrepreneurial in the way they find work.
So what’s actually happening at ground level? Why do so many businesses opt to hire casuals rather than trying to attract long-term, loyal staff?
And is the shift creating more flexible jobs, or just a generation of worried workers locked out from benefits such as sick leave and holiday pay?
Ben Neumann, owner of mobile cocktail bar and events company Liquid Infusion, employs more than 60 casuals. But getting new staff to even turn up is tricky.
“There’s a 30 per cent chance they won’t show up for their first shift,” he says.
In an industry that doesn’t always inspire loyalty, Neumann says those that stay with the company become “part of the family”.
The nature of the business, which is busiest on weekends, means hiring mostly casual staff is the only option.
“When we’re not busy we don’t have to fork out for services that aren’t required, which is what sends a lot of businesses into strife,” he says.
He also doesn’t have to pay holiday or sick leave, and can quickly terminate staff if necessary. The downside is that staff can skip shifts with just a few hours’ notice. Theft is also a problem.
Janeece Keller, owner of kid’s travel app Bound Round and consultancy firm Katoka, has had varied experiences.
Hiring casuals allows her to tap into a more diverse resource pool, including students and mothers who don’t want to work full-time. It also allows her to manage cash flow and test team members.
But it can end badly, as was demonstrated when a casual stormed out of a client meeting right before deadline, leaving the business with “a real reputation problem”.
In her start-up app business, she says taking on full-timers almost sight unseen is too risky.
“It makes much more sense to put casuals on and I’m not a fan of unpaid internships so this is somewhere in-between.”
However she says it takes more time to manage casual workers, and some are unreliable, such as the person who texted her to say they couldn’t work their shift on the same day because it was “too close to Christmas”.
Meanwhile, the owner of a wedding event business, who prefers to remain nameless, has seen everything.
“I’ve had workers steal from me, lie, defame me, claim for hours not actually worked, not turned up because the surf was good on the day, turned up and then gone surfing when I’ve left them unsupervised.”
She says finding good staff is a huge challenge, and younger workers are the worst: “It’s all about me and what can I get now?”
Hiring permanent staff isn’t an option, as “no one wants to work permanent part-time over the weekend”.
Instead, she now relies on a casual pool of reliable older women.
Mum-of-two Rebecca McMahon both likes and dislikes her job as a casual bar and gaming attendant.
McMahon, who also runs online store Baby for Life, works 15 to 30 hours a week to supplement the family’s income. The hourly rate is great, and she enjoys the work.
“You are only casual so you’re not there all the time. For me, I don’t take my work home with me,” she says.
However rosters aren’t always done on time, so she often doesn’t know when her next shift is very far in advance. “Try running a life around that or budgeting,” she says.
It also throws out meal planning for her young family and can make it difficult to maintain a smooth marriage with her husband, who works full-time.
“If I’m working four or five nights, I won’t see him those nights, we basically swap the kids over,” she says.
“I’d like not to be working so much because it is exhausting but I can’t really work full-time in a normal job until the kids are a bit older.”
Even then, the cost of putting her children in childcare may mean that her current situation is the best financial option.
Meanwhile, in the constantly-changing media landscape, job security is tenuous at the best of times, but particularly if you’re casual.
A Melbourne producer, who prefers to remain anonymous, says while the hourly rate is good, there is always the worry the job will just evaporate.
Different shifts, including night and weekend work, also make it hard to get into any sort of routine.
“You don’t have much bargaining power – you kind of have to take what you can get. It’s hard to make yourself indispensable.”
The 35-year-old says while the situation has worked up until now, he will have to get a full-time job if he’s to consider taking out a mortgage with his partner down the track.
“I feel like this (casual work) would have been fine 10 years ago. It’s kind of a young person’s game.”
Accountant and financial adviser Nikhil Sreedhar finds himself in a plum position.
His former full-time employer has hired him back as a three-day-a-week casual, while he builds his own business on the side – with the office at his disposal.
“It’s good because for those three days a week I don’t worry about my own issues, I worry about someone else’s,” he says.