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Issue #1554      4 July 2012

The “use-and-throw-away” workers

(Part 1)

The right to work is a basic human right. It does not mean the right to a few hours of casual labour at the whim of some boss. It means secure employment on a living wage in a safe, healthy work environment. That is not the experience of an increasing number of Australian workers. Behind the “rosy” unemployment figures of five percent unemployment lies another story, of “Lives on Hold”, or what might more aptly be described as the “use-and-throw-away” workers.

Lives on Hold is the title of a report by an inquiry commissioned by the ACTU on the growth and extent of insecure work in Australia. Former Labor deputy prime minister Brian Howe chaired the inquiry which held a series of public hearings around Australia and received 521 submissions, including 458 from individual workers.

The report notes that 40 percent of the workforce is in non-permanent forms of employment and that a quarter of employees have no entitlement to sick leave or paid leave. It makes a mockery of the government’s National Employment Standards and the system of “modern awards” that are supposed to protect all workers.

This is an appalling situation, one that reflects an insidious erosion over the past two to three decades of permanent employment and wages, working conditions and entitlements.

“Indeed, while there are more jobs in our economy than ever before they are not the secure, full-time jobs that existed a generation ago.”

“… 30 years ago, the underemployment rate was only 2.6%. The recent underutilisation rate (12.6%) of the labour force represents over 1.5 million Australians of working wage,” the report notes.

Up until the 1970s the trade union movement had kept the lid on any employer attempts to replace permanent employment by casual and contract labour. Retail and hospitality were two sectors where part-time and casual work were common, quite often hiring students, backpackers and women with family responsibilities.

In the public sector, part-time clerical workers, nurses, teachers, police, and other employees could expect ongoing employment with pay structures based on years of employment, qualifications and opportunities for promotion. It was unheard of for teachers to be on contracts that denied them their annual leave and left them from year to year uncertain about future employment.

Construction companies employed workers directly; on the waterfront there was permanent employment, likewise in banks and insurance companies. Part-time employment was only permitted in some occupations and it was carefully controlled, providing pro-rata entitlements. Casual labour was used to carry out unpredictable jobs or fill temporary positions, such as when another worker was sick or on maternity leave.

Forms of job insecurity

Almost 2.2 million workers in Australia are employed as “casuals”. Casual employment is most prevalent amongst younger workers and women. It is an insidious disease which has become endemic since employers took advantage of the dismantling of the old centralised award system.

“Over half of all casual employees are ‘permanent casuals’ in that they have long-term, ongoing and regular employment but, by virtue of being casuals, have none of the basic entitlement associated with ongoing employment. Over half of all casuals have been employed in their current job for over a year and over 15% of casuals have been in their job for more than 5 years,” the report says.

Another one million workers are “independent contractors” – a third of these in the construction industry. A significant number of these contractors are engaged in sham contracting arrangements where the employment relationship is disguised, enabling employers to avoid their legal obligations to pay leave, superannuation, workers’ compensation, insurance and other entitlements.

Casual labour and fixed term contracts are increasingly being used to fill ongoing positions. Teaching is one area where their use is skyrocketing. The report notes that the “number of casual employees in Australian universities has increased by 81% since 1996, and employees on fixed-term contracts has increased by 47% over the same period.”

There are similar trends in primary and secondary education. “What was seen as a life-long vocation at the end of years of tertiary studies is now treated by the government as a temporary job.

“It was not uncommon during our hearings to meet teachers who had been employed ‘on contract’ for up to two decades.”

The report details a number of areas where casualisation is on the rise and while noting the impact on employees.

For example, educational institutions are cutting costs, preparing the way for its commodification in a highly competitive market place. Fixed term contracts avoid payment of leave over the summer holiday period and avoid the annual incremental increases in salaries of teachers in permanent employment. It is a cost-cutting exercise that hurts the students and quality of education as well as the staff.

The report does highlight the problems of women in the textile industry, where they have “no bargaining power and not the ability to push back against intimidation, harassment and bullying.”

The labour hire, commonly referred to as body hire, is quite prevalent in manufacturing, property and business, health and community services, affecting around 605,000 workers.

The other group of highly vulnerable and super-exploited workers are outworkers, predominantly migrant women in the textile, clothing and footwear industry. The practice is increasingly common in telemarketing.

Some of the worst offenders are governments. “The Commonwealth and State public sectors are increasingly engaging in fixed-term contractors and labour hire agencies to deliver core activities, at the expense of ongoing employees.” Privatisation and outsourcing of work has also taken their toll on permanent employment and pay and working conditions.

No guarantees

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data, 37 percent of all employees working part-time have no guaranteed minimum hours. Hours vary on a weekly basis for more than one third of them. Others experience excessive hours.

The situation has deteriorated to such an extent, that in Australia the home of the first eight-hour day in 1856, 1.8 million workers usually work more than 50 hours per week. For most this is not their preference.

To refuse to work the hours that are offered can mean no call-ups to work.

Low or fluctuating income, unpredictable hours, unpredictable income, uncertainty about future income (or even having a job) make it extremely difficult to pay bills, manage family life, obtain a housing or car loan, rent a home.

This is compounded by the lack of paid sick and annual leave and other entitlements.

Part 2 – Insecure employment and exploitation  

Next article – Coates Hire campaign finishes with major win for workers

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