Making a casual worker permanent – can it be done?

Last Wednesday, ACTU secretary, Sally McManus gave a speech at the National Press Club on increasing the minimum wage and improving job security. I was asked by the ABC NSW Statewide Drive program with Fiona Wyllie, to respond which I did on the day. Of course, I support any efforts to promote employment security. Further analysis of the speech is as follows.

At the core of the ACTU’s proposals is to give casual workers who have worked regularly in a job for 6 months an option to convert to permanency under labour law.* This is quite an ambitious target and it is not altogether clear how the process would work. In my own research, I heard of many crafty practices that employers use to keep their workforces ‘flexible’ – and cheap. Practices included:

  • Increasing the performance requirements of a job through monitoring and surveillance, then getting rid of whoever didn’t make it. This also  had the effect of making jobs more stressful so workers would voluntarily leave;
  • Converting a worker to one day a week permanency and then casual the rest of the time so the employer has done its duty to a minimal level but keeps its options open;
  • Getting rid of experienced, qualified but more expensive workers for cheaper less skilled workers (a common practice in education);
  • Moving workers around departments in an organisation (eg a university) to avoid conversion to permanency requirements – the way many businesses are set up with separate entities under the one umbrella it is a feasible practice for them also;
  • Probationary jobs for some months so it is easy to get rid of workers before any permancy conversion requirements come up;
  • Offshoring, simply moving jobs out of Australia.

In Sally McManus’ speech, big business is portrayed as the big offender in terms of use of casual workers. But actually, government is a mighty offender too. It is not just the procurement practices which were a focus in the speech, it is the huge contingent of casual and contract workers in health care and education sectors (all jobs growth areas) and in the social programs which are continuously up for competitive tendering keeping the workers on contracts. While there was some mention of these problems in the speech there was not the attention they needed. The ACTU’s 2012 insecure work inquiry did a good job going through these issues.

The extent of the deficits in government employment was exemplified in a report in 2015 about 41,000 applications for 1250 permanent jobs in the public service and you had to be working in the public service already to apply. I am sure nothing has changed in the last 3 years. It shows the extent of government culpability in relation to insecure employment in Australia.

Government employment practices have a flow-on effect to the private sector . A large proportion of casual workers are in ‘on demand’ sectors especially ‘retail trade’ and ‘accommodation and food services’. These industries will fight tooth and nail to keep up their casualised workforces under the competitive pressures they face such as with the establishment of Amazon and German supermarket chain Kaufland in Australia.

Another key problem in Australia is the huge ‘reserve army’ of people that get channelled into low end precarious jobs because they have no choice but to accept them. Social security policy and law which mandate unemployed people to take any job ‘deemed suitable’ and the low level of Newstart contribute to that. This also fuels the gig economy, labour hire and ‘sham’ contracting. Dealing with Centrelink and the employment agencies (with their incentives for quick job placement), is so brutal people prefer working at sub-minimum wages and poor conditions to avoid it.

Getting more of the insecure workers engaged in unions would be great but from what I saw and heard in my research they are a very disengaged group of workers and don’t see unions as being helpful to them – only for the ‘insiders’ in the good jobs. Apparently most union members are professional and public sector workers.

So what should unions do? Not easy but engagement with casual workers on their terms is needed. And the union movement has some way to go on this.

*In July 2017, the Fair Work Commission brought into law the right of casual workers with regular and routine hours of work to request conversion to permanency after 12 months employment notwithstanding a number of grounds whereby employers can refuse the request..

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