The plight of Australia’s casuals

The consequences of insecure work in Australia are dreadful and getting worse. This should be obvious to all but the wilful ignorant. The choice confronting many casual workers this winter will be whether to stay at home to care for a sick child or go out to work, so they will be able to pay the rent and put food on the table. So why is the subject rarely mentioned by politicians? Why do they continue to resurrect fears about WorkChoices, while ignoring the fact that millions of Australians have no real work rights at all?

In 2011, the Australian Council of Trade Unions commissioned an inquiry into insecure work. It found that about 40 per cent of Australia’s workforce of over 12 million was employed on a casual, subcontractor or fixed-term contract basis.

The inquiry was headed by a former Labor deputy prime minister, Brian Howe, and a retired judge, Paul Munro of the Industrial Relations Commission. Also on the panel of inquiry was Jill Biddington, the unionist and educator, and Sara Charlesworth, the principal research fellow at the University of South Australia’s Centre for Work + Life.

Hearings were conducted in 22 towns and cities around Australia. Submissions were filed by the Australian Council of Social Services, church welfare organisations, Beyond Blue and the Federation of Ethnic Communities, as well as unions and individual workers. A total of 521 submissions were submitted, 452 from individual workers.

Here is a summary of the inquiry’s grim findings:

  • Factory workers and many other casuals complained that they often didn’t know from one day to the next if they would be rostered for another shift. They reported that they were required to check by calling in at night or early in the morning.
  • Employers in many industries are demanding that workers, including labourers and teenage sales staff selling chocolates in a mall, get a business number and set themselves up as subcontractors. This ploy relieves the employer of a range of costs, including the cost of compensation in the event of a worker being injured on the job.
  • The National Tertiary Education Union reported that 60% of all university academic staff are now employed on a fixed-term contract, usually for one or two semesters. This means they are not only left without pay while they search for other work during the long summer recess, they are also left in limbo, wondering if they will be re-engaged for any part of the coming academic year.
  • State teachers’ unions revealed that their members, even those willing to work in remote areas, are also victims of the increasing preference of public, as well as private sector employers, to engage staff on a temporary basis.
  • Clerical workers said they regularly worked unpaid overtime in an effort to keep their jobs.
  • Many workers reported that they closed their eyes to dodgy accountancy practices, workplace bullying and even breaches of safety regulations for fear of being labelled a trouble-maker and shown the door. Casual workers can be dismissed, without compensation, at five minutes’ notice.
  • Nurses and care workers in aged care homes reported understaffing, particularly during night shifts.
  • Casuals in many sectors, including the retail and hospitality sectors, are often engaged for part-time shifts of between four hours and five and a half hours (the maximum time workers can be legally asked to work without being given a proper break). Most adult workers in these sectors are paid a top rate of about $25 an hour, which includes a loading for sick leave and holiday pay. They are entitled to penalty rates of about $56 if they work on Sundays and public holidays. But generally these coveted shifts are rationed or given to permanent staff to allow them to take home a living wage. Part-time casuals thus dread being rostered off, without pay, on public holidays. Over Christmas and Easter adult casual workers are often rostered off, without pay, for four days.
  • Fast food outlets cut costs by hiring teenage school children at junior rates for many shifts, including weekend and public holiday shifts. Many restaurants and bistros also impose a surcharge on customers on Sundays and public holidays to further offset penalty rates.
  • The advent of automatic check-out machines in supermarkets continues to lead to staff cuts; meanwhile employers’ organisations continue to lobby against penalty rates. They have been successful in Adelaide in having penalty rates reduced by half in exchange for a higher weekday hourly rate.
  • Employers are obliged to offer permanent employment to workers engaged as casuals for more the six months. Yet time and again the inquiry panel heard that casuals were terminated as this deadline loomed.
  • To try to make ends meet many casuals have two, and even three, casual jobs. They go from one casual shift to another, often with long journeys in between. Even worse they have to spend their time looking for work and filling in Centrelink diaries, perhaps getting a few shifts here and there. They have little in the way of superannuation savings because if they earn less than $450 in a month per employer, that employer doesn’t have to pay contributions to their super fund.
  • Breadwinners are forced to pay crippling rents because they find it impossible to save for a deposit for a house. In any case, the banks are reluctant to lend to people who don’t have secure employment. Why can’t we have more public housing – and public housing that could be purchased from state governments, in affordable instalments – instead of being rented?
  • Welfare agencies warn that people living in a constant state of anxiety about their employment and income situation are likely to suffer health problems.

It was hoped that the findings of the inquiry into insecure work in 2012 would lead to the casualisation of the workforce becoming a major issue at the 2013 general election. Yet after a brief surge of interest from the media, the inquiry’s findings appear to have been put on the backburner.

40-odd years ago Australia was considered a workers’ paradise. After hard-won battles, unions had seen legislation gradually introduced for paid sick leave, paid annual leave and paid public holidays, as well an eight hour day and penalty rates for those called on to give up time with their families to work on Sundays and public holidays.

It’s hard to believe that we have given up so much without a fight. Today our work force could, perhaps, best be described as cowed: too frightened of the consequences to join a union, let alone to call in the union about workplace concerns.

Employers argue that things had to change because too many workers were rorting the system: taking paid sickies, loafing on the job, jacking up their overtime claims and endlessly striking for higher wages. They complained vehemently about unfair dismissal claims, which, they alleged, were often spurious and ruinously expensive.

There have been some gains. For instance, the National Bank of Australia is among the employers who have introduced paternity leave. Yet insecure work, enormous HECS debts and the high cost of housing and child care lead many Australians to indefinitely defer starting a family.

When the Australian labour laws were deregulated in the 1980s it was thought that the introduction of computers and other new technologies would lead to a shorter working day and more leisure time. Initially, there was concern about how we would all cope with so much free leisure time. We were advised to take up more hobbies and sports and learn a foreign language.

But this worry was solved when many employers, including the big banks, decided to make permanent staff redundant and cut costs by engaging part time casuals who, with the help of new technologies, could do the same work, in almost half the time. If the new casual staff proved inefficient, they could be legally fired at five minutes’ notice.

And things are getting worse.

On 26 February, the ABC’s Four Corners broadcast The Jobs Game, which reported that since the Commonwealth Employment Service was replaced by Job Search Australia in 1998 it has cost the taxpayer about $18 billion. The program, however, claimed that millions of those dollars have been rorted by some of the agencies who make up the government’s Job Search network.

Four Corners’ investigators, Linton Besser and Ali Russell, reported that the government first pays an agency up to $587 dollars when a job applicant registers. The agency receives up to $385 more if they place that applicant in work. If that person remains in the job for three months, the agency receives a further fee of about $2,900, with an additional $2,900 if the applicant remains in the job for six months.

It was alleged that the primary victims of false claims are the particularly hard to place job seekers: the disabled, Indigenous people, kids who left school early and workers who have no access to transport. Apparently little is done to try to find them work or increase their skills. They are simply ‘parked’ and, according to former Job Search agency staffers, inflated claims are made about their jobseeking and training activities, and their signatures photoshopped. It was reported that one victim of an agency’s false claims ended up homeless, with his payments stopped, because Centrelink investigators decided that it was he who was rorting the system.

The Four Corners investigation found that although the government has recouped some of the millions it has paid out in questionable claims, not one agency has been sanctioned for misappropriation of funds. The program suggested that the main reason for rogue agencies allegedly falsifying documents to obtain payments from the government is that there are just not enough jobs to go round. They are being asked by the government to find work for 780,000 jobseekers when there are only 150,000 vacancies.

There have also been disturbing claims of training colleges offering dodgy courses to the desperate, who end up with no sought-after qualifications and a large government debt. And yet science, engineering, journalism and many other graduates from our top universities are being employed, without pay, as interns.

Employers report that they want to give young people on-the-job experience and a chance to prove their worth. But a graduate who contacted Linda Mottram’s ABC morning show in February complained that he felt exploited after spending about two years working, for months at a time, as an intern for various firms without ever being offered paid work. He called for the abolition of the intern system. Abuse of the intern scheme has led to time limits being imposed on employers in the United Kingdom. They are needed here. No employer should be allowed to engage young people for months on end without pay.

There have been endless complaints of outrageous workplace exploitation from backpackers and other visiting workers while we continue to export jobs to developing countries where working conditions are often deplorable. So what’s to be done?

All workers should join a union. Unions have been denigrated for decades by employers’ organisations, conservative politicians and the media. The result has been an ongoing loss of working conditions.

But we can’t just leave it to the unions. We, the workers, have to make the effort to email or phone our MPs at least every week to demand workplace change. We have to badger and badger our MPs if we want change. We workers should also contact the media to ask for more programs about insecure work and its consequences. It’s up to us to complain in sufficient numbers to win change for the better.

The world’s population is growing. We are living longer. Increasingly labour-saving technology is making many jobs redundant and scientists are warning that the world’s resources are finite. So shouldn’t we be calling for discussions about a shorter working week – for everyone? In Germany, during the global financial crisis, many employers cut hours, rather than staff. The pain was shared.

There should be more fairness, more equality. Is it true that many multinational companies are avoiding tax? Surely, it’s time that we were finally told the result of the investigations? Is there any truth in the theory that the government is nervous about coming down too hard on the multinationals in case they pull up sticks, move elsewhere and create more unemployment here? Well, Australia is better off than many other countries that might be subjected to corporate blackmail. We can feed ourselves.

There are desperate pleas for an increase in the New Start payment and an end to the tax and superannuation concessions for the wealthy. At present it seems we are cosseting the rich while tacitly encouraging poor pensioners to drop off the twig by suggesting they are an increasingly unaffordable drain on the public purse. Today’s poverty-stricken pensioners are likely to have been the middle-aged men and women who lost their jobs after the deregulation of the labour market in the late 1980s. Many never got another permanent job. Yet obscene salaries continue to be paid to corporate chiefs whose answer to the challenge of increasing production and profits seems to be to downsize and export jobs.

Fraud by job search agencies should not be tolerated. But then let’s not pretend that the agencies can find jobs for 780,000 people, when there are less than 200,000 vacancies. Instead of sending jobseekers out, day after day, to pester employers to sign Centrelink paperwork, or holding questionable training courses, the agencies could be giving unemployed kids the chance to learn skills that are personally valuable and readily marketable: driving classes for example, basic house cleaning, cooking and gardening skills. With these skills they could become self-employed. Job Search classes in reading and basic arithmetic are also needed to help kids who left school early get entry-level jobs. There is also a need for training in life skills, like how to keep healthy and survive on Newstart payments.

Sixty is the new forty, they say. But employers continue to waste so much talent by their blatant discrimination against people over forty. Check the railway stations at peak hour when people are rushing to work. You would be lucky to spot one mature age worker in a hundred.

Infrastructure Australia has pointed out that immigration is at record levels, yet we are not providing housing, hospitals schools, transport or community centres to cope with our rapidly increasing population. Perhaps we should be considering a New Deal here and invest much more in infrastructure and training. We might have to borrow to do so. In Australia today people are crying out for better infrastructure – even if the federal and state governments had to borrow the money to create it would lead to the employment of thousands of people around the country.

Ava Hubble

Ava Hubble is an author and former columnist and reporter, now working as a freelance writer.

More by Ava Hubble ›

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  1. Its true unions are the members normal people not criminals as the government is trying to make out, older people have no chance of employment if they lose their job, employers want to dominate employees by threats of no work unless you toe their line, and thats what this government wishes to achieve

  2. WRT: “Abuse of the intern scheme has led to time limits being imposed on employers in the United Kingdom. They are needed here. No employer should be allowed to engage young people for months on end without pay.”

    No employer is allowed to engage a person for work without pay. Activities of an internship are actually work when they accrue a benefit to the employer. All work in Australia attracts a statutory minimum rate of pay; namely, the minimum wage or safety net minimum rate for the work classification defined by a relevant modern award. Therefore, internships in Australia should provide industry experience only and not require that the intern complete tasks that an employed person would do. If you were duped make a claim for services rendered!

  3. From

    “Few in the West are aware of the drama unfolding in today’s “epicenter of global labor unrest.” A scholar of China exposes its tumultuous labor politics and their lessons for the Left.”

    Whilst appalling working conditions do exist overseas, many standards are raised up by similar actions to the ones the article highlights have become imperative for Australians to undertake. Great article! Thank you.

  4. Of course, the so called ‘paradise’ forty years ago required married women to resign from the Commonwealth public service, known as a provider of relatively secure employment. (I think that rule changed in the late 60s.) And now the public service is also under great pressure on conditions and job security.

  5. I agree with Penelope that the workers’ paradise of 40 years ago was rather restricted. Far more rights exist now. For example, while an employer may try to get a worker to register a small business and label themselves a contractor, if it is sham arrangement it will no longer be sustained at law with the tax department, WorkCover or employment law. Me thinks this article is currying dismay and outrage a tad too much.

  6. A brilliant article which encapsulates all types of workplaces plus rorting of the system by dodgy agencies and colleges. The vulnerable include a wide range of people from all walks of life from school kids who are signed up to do a Cert III in hospitality but are not given enough or long enough shifts to do the so-called training! As they get older they are not given as many shifts as the employer has to pay them more! Ridiculous. also migrants and refugees who are at the beck and call of Centrelink and now to be renamed “Job Action” agencies who send them on meaningless courses such as “Green Light” Program” run recently in the outer east in Melbourne supposedly to deliver ” a job skills program” which many of my English language students had to attend understand the meaning of interview skills. yes they had an interpreter but what use is that if they are competing for jobs in an English speaking world? It is purely a tick-box money grabbing scheme at the end of the tax year. Even most of our teachers in Migrant English, TAFE are casual – not even short contract – as you mention in your article! We have “on-going” casual co-ordinators who have been around for many semesters and they have not even been awarded a six-month contract! Co-ordination involves not only dealing with co-teachers, teaching and planning etc. but doing all the administration;data entry etc and reporting to various agencies who fund our students and the uni/TAFE . They are usually paid a non-teaching hour per week to do the admin plus an extra one at the end of term, I believe. Of course the paperwork takes much longer. In Higher Ed too there are many casual posts.
    Principals in primary schools also have too much power with regard to hiring and firing teachers on short contracts. Short contract teachers have no right of appeal either. Also what effect does this have on our children when they see highly skilled, dedicated teachers lose their contract and be replaced by someone who is less experienced or competent just to satisfy a jealous boss or to save money? What does this do to the sanity of the teachers who live under such a regime. How can our educators continue to function when their position is constantly under threat or every decision they make, or question they raise or report they write is challenged by someone less competent but who has the power to sack them? I despair. if we invest so much time, agonising over our children’s education why can’t we respect trained, highly skilled, passionate teachers? It doesn’t make sense.

  7. No it is not. In TAFE most of our highly qualified staff are not even on short contracts, they are “on-going casuals” who are co-ordinating classes!
    Kids are who are employed by chains are given less and less shifts the older they get as employers will have to pay them more. Refugee and migrant students in my class are pulled out and their learning of the language disrupted by job agencies contracted out by Centrelink to do meaningless courses just to tick a box and get some “funding”- there is no job at the end of them.
    School teachers work in fear of not having their contract renewed despite being passionate and highly competent. What is this doing to the education of our children. How can you expect continued commitment if employees live in fear of not having a job after 6 months? The article is sadly quite right.

  8. Re Valerie’s comment…My classes at TAFE were typically up to double the maximum. Graduates were don’t need are in admin,which gets 50% of fees. I had no mentor whilst in most recent teaching (Qld) was required to use yet another super scheme..more wasted fees, found lying to be cultural at Bundall from the Head Honcho at Southport down in admin. Highlighting serious defects eventually saw me ousted after an interview for work I’d been guarantee was no less than a lie by the one of only two on the pane, he being a person with whom I had dispute previously and who in no sense could be called ‘unbiassed’. A complaint saw me never offered work again.Howard,who still lies about ‘my mandate to install the GST…after Hewson lost the elections for proposing GST was the arch-demon of the New Order, as were also Hawke and Keating.From 1970 onwards it has been all downhill for Australian culture and real values as we become closer to inescapable serfdom through personal debt, 457 Visa, connivance behind the political fronts, the alien control of our governments, bankruptcy being even worsened by the LNP,and such twisted ‘achievements’ as the FTA with China, next will be India…and note the present outrage that Chinese (Indian next) “tradesmen” will not have to be competency tested here….(MUST be stopped by us)

    On Child-employment…”for pay” When in the 1990’s I found girls were being molested and propositioned when employed on some Centrelink scheme at a Wyong Chicken shop I drew attention of it to Centrelink. The girls wwere also dispensed-with at the end of the taxpayer funded period and a new one started and on my information, propositioned. Cntre link response…and I know the man’s surname’ was ‘what do you expect us to do about it?…go and see the police or someone’..”so even with my complaint and access to the girls in question you will continue to fund this place which just uses taxpayers to employ continuously replaced staff??…”Yes”. With such feel-good laws created by lobbyists some of whom Julia Irwin identified such as ‘multiculturalism’ penalty for ‘antisemitism’…an absurd and anthropologically ignorant description of the acts of persons complaining of corruption, genocide and abuse….and now ‘Marriage and child adoption ‘equality’ ‘stop the boats’ and other such ‘operational secrets’we are finding ourselves being sold out to China in the main, but in general anyone who will give the PM of the LNP or ALP a big hug and a kiss and some infantile compliment.

  9. WOW, what a well encapsulated article that has resonated very true for me at my near to 50 years. As a solo parent of only one child, HECS debt encumbered as I couldn’t afford to finish my degree in the past, undergoing the never ending task of paying off the house that I realise I am very lucky to have with still years of debt to go, and described as ‘highly employable’ with adaptable and up to date various industry skills.
    My recent past ‘longer than expected’ time as an unemployed person was lengthened in term by the Job Search assistance I was heavily suggested. I didn’t enrol in that suggested more debt course.
    Nonetheless, it seems my talents as shown in my resume are as ‘Professional Temporary’, and with that comes no union support, no sick pay and alot of anxiety about the future – moreso for my daughter instead of me! Where or what is that Union that I can belong to?

  10. Dear Barb, do hope this reaches you. Why not contact the ACTU for advice. I hope you will. All the very best to you and your daughter. Ava

  11. Ava, I am a person in my 60s. You reflect my experiences. Many older people are desperate for work. I despair for all the young people. Debts, no jobs, rapacious conditions, casualization, and jobs that I see as mostly tedious. Keep speaking up. Agitate. Thank you for your analysis.

  12. casaulization of the workforce is more prevalent than ever now due to the fact that employers can put pressure on employees and raise the iron fist over them if an employee raises an issue or are within there rights about something

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