Working Life
Insecure work-woman

It’s time to talk about solutions for insecure workers


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By Lisa Heap

Executive Director of the Australian Institute of Employment Rights

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

WITH a federal election behind us, a brand new government elected and seats in the next senate close to being resolved, now is the right time for Australians to start a national conversation about what’s really happening in our workplaces.

Many Australians are struggling to deal with the impact of insecure work and their struggles have not yet been properly recognised. This rising form of work is creating first and second–class citizens, with temporary migrants relegated to an even lower rung on the ladder.

We need a national conversation that goes beyond simply hearing from the usual industrial relations stakeholders.

Work is a major part of our lives

Work may not define us but it has a major impact on our lives. Work also plays a critical role in the very constitution of a society. The interdependence of citizens through their work is one of the most important structural bonds of any community. We all need to be involved in this conversation about the future direction of our working lives.

The Howe Inquiry defined insecure work as work with unpredictable pay, inferior rights and entitlements, limited or no access to paid leave, irregular or unpredictable working hours, uncertainty over the length of a job and a lack of input on wages, conditions and work organisation.

Many of these work features are what Australians so thoroughly rejected when they were put forward under the Howard Government’s WorkChoices legislation.

While that legislation was publicly debated, argued, campaigned against and ultimately banished by Australians at the 2007 Federal Election, no such action has happened around the rise of insecure work in Australia. Both major political parties have failed to address the rise of insecure work, including at the recent Federal Election. As a result, employers are being allowed to sidestep regulation, avoid payment of fair minimum entitlements and are creating cultures that damage through insecurity.

By creating an industrial relations system that protects the rights of ‘standard’ full-time, permanent workers but not the rights of non-standard workers such as causal workers or contractors, we have allowed millions of Australians to work under similar conditions to those WorkChoices promoted. And this isn’t a small group of workers who have less work rights than standard workers.

Today, around 40% of Australia’s workforce are employed through non-standard means. It has also been found that permanent workers lose some job security when there is a rise in temporary or contract workers, mainly because these contractors may be used by management to drive down wages.

It is true that not everyone working in non-standard work arrangements are being exploited. Some, in highly specialised fields with relative power in the labour market may choose contracting arrangements because they suit their needs. However, evidence shows that for many workers in insecure work environments, the choice is not theirs, they dislike the uncertainty and their rights are adversely impacted.

fluro-fightback 2013

The recent Fluro Fightback in rally raised attention about insecure work. Photo: Mark Phillips/ACTU

Most casuals do not like their work arrangements

Many argue that people who are casual workers choose to work this way because they like the flexibility that it offers. A survey of casual workers does not support this argument though.  A 2007 study found over 50% of casual workers indicated they would prefer ongoing work, even if it reduced their income.

This argument for casual work may have risen because until recently Australian Awards and agreements did not provide comprehensive arrangements for ongoing part-time work. This meant that the flexibility needed for women to work and care for their family was only available through casual work and came at the cost of job security.

Casual work has also been linked with an increased difficulty finding and maintaining accommodation. Casual and freelance workers are more likely to struggle to pay their rent than those who are unemployed. In fact, casual and freelance workers make up 40% of all homeless people.  This is on top of the added difficulties many casual workers face trying to get a home or car loan or even to simply make financial plans.

These are all strong reasons for a national conversation about the consequences and morality of employing large numbers of Australians with fewer rights and entitlements than the rest of the country’s workforce. But what this conversation also needs is to look at is what we do from here.

Where to from here?

We can begin by looking at how awards and agreements define a casual worker. Often both define a casual worker with no more detail than “someone engaged as such”. Under this formulation almost any worker could be employed as a casual worker. A definition of this type does not provide a guide to employers or workers as to when the use of casual labour would or would not be appropriate. Modern awards need to provide a standard definition of a true casual worker and union officials need to be better prepared to negotiate for clearer and more appropriate protections for non-standard employment in agreements.

Currently, classifying a worker as a self-employed consultant or contractor takes a worker out of employment regulation altogether. If a company sources workers through a labour hire company they are able to legally put that worker at arm’s length and can avoid paying entitlements under awards or enterprise agreements that might apply if that person was directly employed.

We need to recast our laws so that every worker, regardless of how they are employed has access to a suite of minimum entitlements and rights.  The argument against this often includes that casual workers would prefer casual loadings rather than access to entitlements. In reality this view is overstated, with more than 50% of casual workers saying they would prefer ongoing arrangements.

We should also talk about creating a portable leave bank so that workers could maintain accruals for leave in an account that would travel with them from employer to employer. Such a scheme already exists in the building and construction industry in Australia and could be extended into other industries.

And we also need to talk about developing a program and resources to educate people about workplace rights at their entry point to the labour market. People need to know their rights when they first start working and we need outreach programs for vulnerable groups of workers such as seasonal migrant, refugee and workers on 457 and student visas.

It’s time for Australia to seriously talk about the consequences of so many of us being employed through insecure arrangements and what can be done to improve the working lives of those who are in insecure work.

A more detailed discussion of the issues raised in this article is available in the new publication Pushing Our Luck: Ideas for Australian Progress from the Centre for Policy Development.

Working Life is a forum to share ideas and opinions about work and life, both light-hearted and serious. The opinions presented on Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.


Creative Commons License
We believe in the free flow of information, and content on Working Life is available to be republished online or in print under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


  1. Gerard O'Neill
    Friday, 1 November, 2013 at 6:55 am · Reply

    The Sydney Olympics was coming up and suddenly there was a glut of work, but you had to travel for it. I had been working as a casual for four years at that time and it was not through choice. There was no permanent work offered to me. As a casual on the Olympic site, I knew I had work through to the Opening at least. Except Christmas.
    When that holiday approached and the permanent employees of the company I and several others were contracted to, were informed of the Christmas bonus for making sure the work was to a standard and on schedule, we casuals were laid off. This meant the Christmas bonus went to the core permanent crew alone and we became unemployed for the Christmas break. I went to the boss and asked if we were to be re-employed in the new year and explained that if he would not confirm that we would be called back, I would have to find work DURING Christmas to ensure I continued to afford staying alive. He refused to say. The result was that the Olympic permanent crews had a great Christmas and ninety percent of workers on that site had a less enjoyable Christmas. I worked through that Christmas on another job because I had no idea if I was to be working through January.
    I had the opportunity to tell that boss off eleven days later when I was called back to the site. I walked into the main office where he was and thanked him in a loud voice for the Christmas I never had. I was not rude, just Scottish.

    Another incident that happened at that same site pertaining to this subject of being treated equally, it was the picnic day. We casuals, on our crew (Different company) were not paid for that day. Casuals that I spoke to from other companies in the area where I was working had received pay for the day as the site had been locked down for the day, so I contacted the site Union rep. on my mobile phone, who called me a fu#*^ scab and that I didn’t deserve to be on the site. I contacted the Parramatta office of the union and I was told by the girl that I would be contacted, never was. I contacted the Sydney office and was given the same run-around. I wrote an email to the union telling them of how poorly I’d been treated and that no more payments would be received until someone actually got of their fat arses and spoke to me. This email was repeated each time I received a notice of overdue payment until the day I received a notice of legal action if my overdue payments were not paid. I sent all the previous emails in one hit with the note “see you in court!” The following day I had a visit on site from the head of the Union apologising. We came to an agreement and I returned to the fold, but this is a lesson I think, for all of us. The enemy is all around us and within. If we are to stand together, it must be TOGETHER without prejudice. Finally, just to think casuals get it real easy. The Christmas of the mass bushfires? I was supposed to be working on Boxing day but rang my boss and said these words, “I can’t make it tomorrow because of the fires. I live in a wooden house and there are embers landing in my garden. I can see the flames licking the top of the escarpment, my daughter is trapped with her grandparents in Wilton and my sister in law is trapped on a highway in the Blue mountains. I need to be here.” I was sacked.

  2. Wilma Hills
    Saturday, 2 November, 2013 at 8:19 am · Reply

    I am over 60 and last year I attended 12 interviews for permanent positions in local government.
    I decided if I was successful in my application for a casual position at Moreland Council I would stop applying for permanent positions.
    So the 25% casual loading for casual work may cover public holidays and annual leave, but as Gerard said, I don’t get paid for attending Christmas lunches, nor meetings, conferences and days that there is no work available.
    I am “lucky” in having a small “transition to retirement ” pension to help tide me over, and I have paid off my house.
    Also Moreland Council has given me plenty of work, has the flexibility to offer salary sacrifice into super for casual workers and is a great employer in that they support employees taking part in campaigns such as “Say no to violence against women”.

  3. Lyndal
    Saturday, 2 November, 2013 at 6:16 pm · Reply

    The casualisation of the workforce is having terrible effects on individual families. The hospitality industry has it down to such a fine art that, although premises such as clubs and hotels are open 16 hours per day, no one under the supervisory level is employed as full-time, permanent. There needs to be a requirement that only positions that are realistically casual can be casualised, and there should not be this requirement that people regularly employed by a business work at all sorts of different times/hours. Workers should not be machines that are turned on and off. The companies apparently have to meet requirements for having casual workers by manipulating rosters so that their employees have no ‘regular’ working times. This practice also means that people are unable to take a second job because they can’t guarantee availability at given times.
    With such unreliable work comes unreliable income. People cannot commit to a loan, and end up managing their money on a week to week basis rather than working towards spending goals. Ultimately, business itself is suffering as people curtail unnecessary spending, and learn to live with less (not in itself a bad thing, but not what the capitalist system needs to maintain growth).

  4. Cassandra
    Sunday, 3 November, 2013 at 9:56 pm · Reply

    Insecurity, such as that caused by part time and casual work and volatile markets is a necessary component of capitalism and therefore Liberal Party Policy. Rupert Murdoch,who unashamedly uses his ownership of most of Australia’s media to promote his support for unrestrained capital, even stated in his Lowy Lecture last week that “disruption” is a desirable thing for creating opportunities for the business class.

    And he was right! Capitalism thrives on creating fear in those who must sell their labour or who rely on government social services for their income. Fearful people do not demand decent wages and conditions and tremble at the thought of losing their job. Fearful people are easy to exploit and control. Fear that a refugee might take a job or a housing commission home that you have been waiting years for can be whipped up to an election winning ploy for right wing governments. Fear of street violence or of easily identifiable groups like Muslims or bikkies can lead to meek acceptance of the taking away of democratic rights and the rights of people to join together to protect those rights.

    We must use our hard won democratic rights to demand that governments act to remove fear from the population not to actively encourage the likes of Murdoch to boast that the exploitation of disruption and the fear that accompanies it is a golden opportunity for the rich to get even richer and make off with their ill gotten loot to off shore tax havens while urging ever decreasing company taxes here.

  5. Anne Marie
    Monday, 4 November, 2013 at 12:11 pm · Reply

    On this point, some Government owned businesses, such as Australia Post (parcels handling part of the business) treat workers very badly. In Queensland at the Underwood and other facilities, they put on casuals (usually around Christmas) with the implication they will have permanent work. Some casual employees were put on (2011) when the Enterprise Agreement had a clause in it that said casuals who were employed for 12 months or more would be offered permanent positions. Casuals who had been employed for at least 14 months were offered a fixed term ( 3 months) contract. This despite the fact there were no special projects of a fixed term nature occurring. Some employees on casual contracts under the EA have remained as casuals because they refused to sign fixed term agreements (which are not permanent roles) and which agreements were not legal due to terms which were in Work Choices legislation, not the Fair Work Act 2009. These employees do not know their rights. Many are migrants and those who are not migrants are also fearful of losing any work at all. This is a Government business acting outside the current law. This is a Government business with a track record of bullying.

  6. Katherine
    Thursday, 5 December, 2013 at 8:20 pm · Reply

    You think now’s a good time to talk about this? Now? Not when the ALP was in power and you did NOTHING? Unions will never change. Every new EA is the same, more for the permanents and screw everyone else. The PSSA is one of the worst. Doesn’t matter if the public service is flooded with labour hire temps as long as the permanents get to keep riding the gravy train. They can have whatever they like, as long as the temps don’t get paid public holidays or sick leave. Nothing that might impact on the bottom line and then possibly their members.
    I see you got rid of the ‘secure jobs’ website name. Good call Lisa, no one thinks you’re serious about this.

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