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Issue #1555      11 July 2012

Use and throw-away workers (Part 2)

Insecure employment and exploitation

(See Part 1 in last week’s issue here)

The Lives on Hold report commissioned by the ACTU on the growth of insecure work illustrates the impact of the various forms of insecure employment and how employers exploit and abuse their vulnerability.

Gabrielle was one of a number of workers who gave evidence to the inquiry. She was employed as a casual working 38 hours per week through a labour hire company with no sick leave or annual leave entitlements.

“When a person can only choose between casual employment (which benefits the employer and not the employee), and unemployment, then this is not a free market … It is a very unhealthy way to live as it causes a great deal of financial, emotional and psychological stress, especially in times of sickness and unpaid public holidays,” Gabrielle told the inquiry.

“They want all casuals to be available 24/7 without exceptions, or risk not being called,” Joel a casual hospital assistant said. “Some weeks I will not work at all, and then sometimes I will not stop working for two weeks straight…. You never know if you are going to have enough to pay bills…”

The process of casualisation not only reduces the wages, working conditions and entitlements of workers and ability of unions to organise, it undermines the rights of organised workers in more secure employment under an enterprise bargaining agreement. It makes it more difficult for employers in competition with those using casual labour to continue doing “the right thing”.

One of the submissions quoted in the report is from Professors Rosemary Owens and Andrew Stewart of the University of Adelaide Law School. They make the telling point: “The concept of casual employment is entrenched in legislation such as the Fair Work Act 2009, which denies casuals entitlements to annual leave, paid personal leave and severance pay. But more importantly, it is enshrined in awards which make no attempt to confine its use to temporary short term or irregular engagements. As we and many other researchers have pointed out, this has led to a situation where a large number of ‘casuals’ are performing regular and predictable work.”

The report makes a number of recommendations for defining “casual” work and calls for the extension of the National Employment Standards to all workers.

Cause of crisis

The growth of insecure work has risen to “crisis levels”. The process “has been driven by the internationalisation of our economy, rapid technological change, and changes to our household arrangements.” The report then says “the internationalisation of our economy was necessary to secure Australia’s future as a modern, open society – and an inevitable part of that project was changing the way we regulate our labour market.”

Its message is confused, at times becoming an apologist for the neo-liberal economic policies and changes to industrial relations laws that have underpinned the development of the crisis. Then in another sentence it sees sham contracting arrangements as being “clearly designed to maximise profit and minimise [employer] liabilities.”

It blames internationalisation in the abstract, instead of pointing to the real culprits – the transnational corporations, the financial conglomerates who have demanded deregulation of economic, financial and labour markets to facilitate globalisation on their terms, in their interests and to boost their profits.

It correctly notes that the “structure of government funding in certain sectors such as education actually promotes greater casualisation, the misuse of fixed-term contracting, the deterioration of working conditions and increased insecurity for those engaged in more permanent jobs.”

But it also claims: “Community expectations of what governments can do for citizens, and our policy makers’ preferred means of delivering services, have shifted in ways that have changed the nature of public sector employment.”

Policy has changed but have community expectations really changed? Liberal and Labor governments are on the nose for abandoning the traditional roles of government, are winding back services, starving education and health of funds and sacking public servants. The community does not support privatisation, casualisation or the other changes taking place.

“People change their work status much more frequently – moving between jobs, between education or caring and work, from unemployment to employment or from employment to retirement. These shifts have further displaced the single breadwinner in full-time employment model of working life, and fed the demand for more part-time jobs.”

There are some groups who do seek part-time work – eg women with family responsibilities, older workers easing into retirement. But is it correct to suggest changes in work status are feeding demand for more part-time jobs? Or is it the reverse, that the employer drive for greater use of part-time and casual forms of employment that is forcing such changes onto workers?

Reform agenda

The report simultaneously seeks reforms to ameliorate the situation and adopts an almost a defeatist attitude. It says, “We must acknowledge, however, that the shift towards the core and periphery model of the labour market is not a temporary phenomenon.

“It is the result of a major restructuring of our economy, and it is changing the nature of working life.” It does not consider there are other economic options, alternative policies that do not adopt what it aptly describes as the present “use-and-throw-away” mentality of many employers.

The report makes a number of recommendations to widen the definition of “employee” and ensure that casual workers could also receive entitlements.

It proposes universality of labour law, where the definition of “employee” is widened and all workers have access to basic entitlements and minimum and negotiated wages and working conditions. It calls for the licensing of body hire companies.

Its focus is on improving the wages and conditions of casual, contract and body hire workers and ensuring job security where the work is ongoing.

It is strong in its rejection of the use of “temporary overseas workers as a substitute for investing in the Australian workforce – an approach that employers and government are increasingly turning to.”

The report also calls for life-long learning and for reforms to Australia’s tax system and payment of welfare benefits which the present Labor government is unlikely to heed.

It calls for a stronger “safety net”, referring to the inadequacy of the NewStart Allowance and for the liquid assets waiting period be abolished for unemployed workers.

May’s ACTU Congress made a commitment to properly resource and further develop the Secure Jobs. Better Future campaign. The report will be studied and appropriate recommendations developed at the next meeting of the ACTU.

The issue of job security is an issue that affects all workers. It will require more than an inquiry and an ACTU Congress resolution to halt and reverse the huge setback that workers have experienced in Australia. It requires an all out, united struggle by all unions, if the basic right to work is to be restored to the 40 percent of the workforce who are presently denied it.  

Next article – Anger over Tas forestry move

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