Friday, December 14, 2012


The plight of the casual worker

The Sydney Morning Herald
Date December 14, 2012

By James Adonis

James Adonis is one of Australia’s best-known people-management thinkers

The Christmas season brings a spike in casual workers.
Like every industrial relations debate, you can be sure the unions and business groups will be fierce opposites, rarely agreeing on policies that would be equally fair on workers as well as employers. The current debate over casual workers is no exception.  

The issue has become prominent recently thanks to a private member’s bill introduced in parliament by Greens MP Adam Bandt. The bill seeks to provide job security for casual workers of large companies (small businesses will be exempt) by giving them the opportunity to ask for permanent employment in an arbitrated environment.
Even without that bill, the debate would have sparked up at this time of year. The Christmas season brings with it a spike in casual workers hired to meet the rise in consumer demand, particularly in retail and hospitality, two of the sectors most heavily reliant on a casual workforce.

Casual workers are more likely to be women than men, and youths rather than adults, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Casual workers make up 20 per cent of the working population, or approximately 2.2 million people.
Forty-three per cent have been with the same employer for between one and five years and, in data released earlier this year by Safe Work Australia, casual workers endure work-related injuries at a rate that's 50 per cent higher than their permanent colleagues.
I asked spokespeople from the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) for their differing perspectives. 
First, the ACTU’s point of view.

Insecure work makes it harder for workers to plan their lives, but it “suits employers because they shift the risk onto the shoulders of workers”, says the union's spokesperson. That’s because, when customer demand drops, employers can reduce the hours of – or simply fire – their casual workers, thereby cutting costs. 
It’s bad enough that casual workers don’t get annual leave, sick leave, or carer's leave, “which leaves them vulnerable in an emergency”, but the current arrangements also mean their future employment is unpredictable.

The ACTU acknowledges that some workers prefer those jobs, but they’re a minority of the workforce. The majority accepts these positions “because there is no permanent work available,” and this has created an underclass in society, one that finds it difficult to pay bills and mortgage repayments – or to even get a mortgage – without the steady income that comes from a permanent job.

Even while they’re at work, they’re disadvantaged. They “often do not receive the training” afforded to their permanent colleagues and, “in the long term, this will lead to a pool of workers who do not have the skills to be part of our economy”.

Right, now for the ACCI’s point of view … 
Businesses are being impacted by a number of pressures that are ramping up volatility and increasing their level of risk. These include intense competition, tough business conditions, and unsteady consumer demand, the culmination of which results in “absolutely no guarantees” that businesses will survive. 
This requires a balanced approach to industrial relations so that policies don’t make it “more difficult for employers to keep staff on or employ new workers”, says a spokesperson.

It’s also evident that many business owners are struggling. They, too, have mortgages, their margins aren’t that great, and they’re lucky to “take home the equivalent of the minimum wage”. It’s therefore unrealistic to expect them to “guarantee security in employment when there is no security in doing business”.
The unions demean casual work every time they label it as ‘insecure’, but that's why it attracts a financial loading of 25 per cent. “Are unions seriously arguing for staff to have wages cut by 25 per cent?” asks the chamber's spokesperson.
So, whose side are you on? Leave a comment.
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