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Insecure work is not a union construct – it’s the reality of workers’ lives

20th April, 2022

Anthony Forsyth, RMIT University and Labour Law Down Under Blog – image credit: Sam Wallman

The Coalition and business groups want us all to pretend that insecure work is a fiction, something which unions and Labor have imagined to justify new labour laws promoting permanent work.

The Prime Minister and his business supporters rely on ABS data showing the number of casual workers falling from 24.1% of the workforce to 22.8% in the last two years.

University of Melbourne economist Professor Mark Wooden leapt into the debate last week, claiming in the Australian Financial Review that it was “completely wrong” to argue that the rate of casualisation has increased.

But even if we accept that he, the Coalition and the business lobby are right, this does not mean there is no problem with insecure work in this country.

Professor Wooden himself co-authored a journal article in 2020 which noted that at 55.6%, the overall share of non-standard employment is as high as it has been in the last 20 years – and ‘very high by international standards’.

This takes in those working in casual and part-time jobs, on fixed-term contracts, in temporary agency work and working as independent contractors.

Contesting the very notion of insecure work was exactly the line that industry groups ran in their submissions to the Inquiry into Labour Hire and Insecure Work which I chaired for the Victorian Government six years ago.

They wanted me to accept that workers craved casual work, labour hire and fixed-term contracts because of the flexibility offered by these arrangements.

What I heard instead, from hundreds of workers (many of them long-term casual employees engaged via labour hire agencies), was that they would readily trade that much-vaunted flexibility for a permanent job.

They were sick of being on-call and reluctant to refuse work, even when required at short notice (they would often receive a text message late at night, requiring or cancelling a shift the next day).

They wanted to be able to plan care and family responsibilities. They suffered enormous stress from their uncertain income and the inability to meet mortgage or rental payments.

Then there were the heart-wrenching stories I heard from many workers engaged by dodgy labour contractors to do fruit and vegetable picking and packing on our farms. The exploitation of these workers, including underpayment and exposure to serious safety risks, was tantamount to modern slavery.

In the years since the Inquiry, all of these problems with insecure work have continued. In addition, we have seen the rapid growth of gig work, a new (and insidious) form of precarious work that is premised on depriving workers of employment rights.

Platforms like Uber, Deliveroo and Mable flip the normal assumption that workers providing their labour should be covered by the protective framework of awards, the minimum wage, unfair dismissal laws and so on – unless they are running a genuine business of their own.

Instead, gig workers are automatically assumed to be entrepreneurial “independent contractors”. To establish employment rights, they have to challenge this (mis)categorisation in the courts. Only a handful have been able to do so in recent years.

It is convenient for the Coalition and business leaders to ignore all of this, along with the new dimensions of insecure work highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The explosion of coronavirus cases at various times in aged care and other health care settings has revealed that many staff work multiple jobs, often through labour hire agencies.

They and others engaged in casual work have often felt compelled to keep working when sick as they do not qualify for sick leave.

The Victorian Government has sought to tackle this problem through its new sick pay guarantee scheme for casuals.

But for the federal Coalition, If you don’t admit there is a problem then there isn’t anything that needs fixing.

In reality, there is a big problem with insecure work that must be fixed.

We need to end the racket of long-term casual work, especially by enshrining the concept of ‘same job, same pay’ in labour hire – and shut down exploitative gig economy work through a wider definition of employment under the Fair Work Act.

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