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.