For many years, the proportion of Australia’s workforce that is casual, fixed-term contractors and independent contractors has grown and now insecure work is a permanent part of the way businesses operate in Australia.
According to Roy Morgan Research, there are currently just over 1.1 million Australians underemployed or in insecure employment. The most recent ABS data shows about 24 per cent of all employees are casual.
These figures include employees who are well beyond the dictionary definition of a casual. That’s an employee who does not have regular or systematic hours of work or an expectation of continuing work.
Federal Labor Leader Bill Shorten said in his recent address to the Press Club that this election is an opportunity for Australia to have an open dialogue about how we want our workforce to look in the future.
Shorten raised valid questions. Why are we aiming for just a low unemployment figure when more and more Australians from all walks of life and in every field lack security at work? Why do we think that having over 1 million people in casual work and unable to realise their dreams and aspirations is ok?
When Labor’s Fair Work Taskforce held hearings addressing industrial relations issues across the country, workers in many industries raised these questions.
It appears to have become a common practice for Australian businesses to class employees as casual for ridiculously long periods of time and this is having a negative effect on workers and their families.
Causal workers reported that they are unable to secure long-term financial commitments, such as having a mortgage, due to their causal employment.
Far from the stereotype, casual work is not just young people in retail and hospitality jobs. Many industries that traditionally did not have insecure or casual work have moved that way over the years. For example, casuals now make up about 40 per cent of the workforce in universities, according to the National Tertiary Education Union.
An academic told the Fair Work Taskforce that he had worked at the same university in the same department doing the same work for 17 years on fixed term contracts.
“After 17 years it’s hard to argue my employment is not systematic and regular. There is no reason why I need to be casual. What’s frustrating is that 20 years ago there were permanent research assistants employed by Australian universities. Today, we’re all casuals on fixed-term contracts.”
So why is this important?
Because of people like a young Hobart seafarer, who told the taskforce he could not plan for the future.
“With the loss of so many permanent-based Australian ships, any prospect of a permanent job is non-existent now. So for someone like me who wants to buy a house or start a family there’s no job security whatsoever. I could be out of a job just like that”.
There are serious negative consequences of casual work, including unpredictable and fluctuating pay, problems for workers with caring responsibilities and a reduced control over working arrangements. Casual workers can be sacked at any time without any leave entitlements or redundancy packages.
Let’s just call it for what it is. At 24 per cent and counting when do we acknowledge that a large proportion of the Australian workforce have been returned to the pre-Australian Industrial Relations Commission era.
The employee-employer relationship has radically changed for workers, regardless of industry, now viewed as labour cost units on company balance sheets rather than workers with families and dreams of home ownership.
There will always be a proportion of the workforce who will be casual and contractors, but there is no doubt that one of the growing pressures on inequality and insecurity is people not having some control over the permanency of their work.
That is why the conversation needs to happen.
Lisa Chesters MP is the Chair of Fair Work Taskforce and the Federal Member for Bendigo. Before entering Federal Parliament in 2013 Lisa was a Lead Organiser for United Voice – Victorian branch.