Without Action, Permanent Work will be a Thing of the Past
Australians today face a very different job market compared to the generations that came before them.
The era where reliable, secure, decently paid and permanent jobs were the default started with Australia’s post-war economic boom, supported and upheld by strong union membership - and it has well and truly ended. Once thought of in Australia as a right, these jobs have been eroded by legislation doing the bidding of big business.
Millennials saw their parents build lives around these jobs - permanent, adequately paid, full-time, with entitlements – and wondered whether they would eventually come. However, while millennials were finishing the university degrees they were told would be their pathway to ‘good’ employment, everything changed. Ironically, in the meantime, university job losses are occurring across the country by the hundreds, and the TAFE sector remains sadly underfunded and neglected.
Generation Z are now entering a workforce where unreliable and insecure work has become the norm, not only for them but for all workers.
As of 2019, permanent full-time workers make up the minority in Australia for the first time ever. We have one of the highest levels of non-standard, unreliable work in the OECD.
The Morrison Government has changed the laws to make it easier for employers to turn permanent reliable jobs into casual, unreliable jobs. A shift in the standard employment relationship to practices like casualization, fractured part time work, arms-length engagement through labour hire companies, and the rise of the gig economy, mean that it is significantly easier for businesses to avoid their most basic obligations to their workers. This has been driven by business trying to minimize their costs, and transfer risks from themselves to their employees.
The ‘gig economy’ describes an entire workforce which did not exist even 10 years ago. It most commonly describes workers who, despite often working regular hours for the same employer, are employed as contractors. This arrangement purports to offer freedom and flexibility to be your own boss. In reality it absolves companies of having to provide workers with the rights and protections employees are afforded, all the while being grossly underpaid (a Transport Workers Union survey of delivery riders in September last year found that their average earnings after costs was just over $10 an hour – significantly below minimum wage).
Tragically last year, in the space of only two months, five delivery riders working under ‘gig economy’ conditions for the companies UberEats, DoorDash and Hungry Panda were killed on the job. Delivery riders were the often unsung and unprotected heroes of the pandemic;on temporary migrant visas and therefore excluded by the Morrison Government from wage subsidies like JobKeeper and JobSeeker. For every rider who dies on the job there are dozens who are injured in workplace accidents or who are victims of assault at the hands of customers. None of these workers have access to the workers’ compensation systems which were created to protect people in these situations.
While the gig economy has created entirely new insecure sectors of our economy, unregulated use of labour hire arrangements have hollowed out what used to be secure, reliable forms of employment.
Labour hire firms initially emerged to provide short-term replacement workers in a range of industries. A classic example of their modern use was the basis for the 2016 Carlton United Brewery dispute in Melbourne. Workers were fired from one company, only to be hired by another on a non-union agreement which cut their pay and conditions. An agreement which had been signed by a handful of workers on the other side of the country, and now could be applied to all employees of that labour hire firm.
Casual work has its place. It can be a practical option for those who can’t work regular hours every week due to some other commitment, commonly those who are studying. While casual workers are denied leave entitlements such as holidays or sick leave, they are supposed to receive a 25% loading. But a recent study by Professor David Peetz of Griffith University found that over half of casual employees probably do not receive the casual loading. The promise of flexible work hours chosen by the worker is too often a myth; many casual workers have regular hours, and in some instances year-long rosters but they are designated casual because it’s cheaper. The average tenure of a casual worker is four years.
Alongside casual contracts, the abuse of short-term contracts has ripped through entire sectors like teaching and higher education, where secure jobs have been replaced with rolling six month or one year contracts. Some academics work with the same institution for decades without seeing an ongoing contract. This has a disastrous impact on the ability of these workers to plan for their futures, secure home loans or take holidays.
Like other forms of insecure work, it is crushing the quality of life of Australian workers. Unreliable work can have profound implications for the quality of working life. It is often characterised by, and leads to, other negatives, such as low pay, less access to opportunities for training and skill development, lack of career path or promotional opportunities, a lack of voice in the workplace and a higher risk of occupational illnesses and injury, insecure or inadequate housing, poor health outcomes, gender based and age-based inequality and inequity, sexual harassment, bullying, and wage theft.
The Government can change laws to make jobs more reliable and secure. But instead they’re choosing to support big business and multinational corporations.
The Federal Government can and should commit to an agreed upon definition of casual work, so that unscrupulous employers can’t label permanent work as casual work, it should also license the labour hire industry and regulate the gig economy.
Other countries have taken effective action against unreliable and insecure work, but we are lagging behind. Our government should recognise that improving reliability of employment is also good economics. The Federal Government should also reform its own employment practices. Public sector unions have recently won an important battle to end the cap on public sector employment which saw short-term contracts and consultants become the norm. Government procurement of goods and services must be underpinned by a preference for local providers who offer reliable jobs to local workers.
Union membership works and is a statistically significant countermeasure to insecure, unreliable work – it can’t be a coincidence that a staggering 92% of union members are permanent workers. Union members have been campaigning against unreliable work for years. If we can’t convince the Federal Government to adopt a positive pro-reliable jobs agenda, we need to change the Government.
Sally McManus is the Secretary of the ACTU and a prominent political and feminist activist. She was previously the leader of ASU(NSW/ACT) representing community, public sector and private sector workers. @SallyMcmanus
Series: Australian Fabians Review - Issue 2
Author: Sally McManus