It’s time to talk about solutions for insecure workers
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.
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.